March 2nd, 2014

We are all unlikely converts God can use to change the world.

Matthew 16:13-20

March 2, 2014

Midterm exam

If you don’t know the name Nabeel Qureshi yet, you probably will at some point.  You’re more likely to know his name already if you know names like Josh McDowell, Lee Strobel, and Ravi Zacharias.  These men join a line of unlikely converts to a personal and transforming faith in Jesus.  The lines stretches backward through the story of the Christian church, and includes C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther, Francis of Assisi, St. Augustine, and the Apostles Paul and Peter.  The beginning of their lives could never have predicted not only their personal faith but how they changed the world.

Nabeel Qureshi intrigues me because his parents were born in Pakistan, and left there in the 1970s, shortly after my missionary family left in 1968.  The elder Qureshi was seeking a better life for his family, came to the United States, became a citizen, and eventually joined the Navy.  But he and his wife raised their two children as devout Muslims.  As Qureshi narrates his story in his new book, Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, however, he shatters your stereotype of a devout Muslim family.  He speaks with only respect toward his parents and his early faith.  Qureshi was still a staunch Muslim practitioner and defender on 9-11, and writes of the fear he and his family felt of being misunderstood because they were both loyal Americans and devout Muslims.

Qureshi, like many of the others I mentioned earlier, began to investigate Christianity with the intent of disproving it.  But the Christians he met and the evidence he found instead brought him closer and closer.  Much to his own surprise and the dismay of his family, a series of dreams eventually to the place where on August 24, 2005, at 3:00 in the morning, Qureshi prayed, “I submit.  I submit that Jesus Christ is Lord of heaven and earth.”  Qureshi has since married, completed his M.D., but chosen a career as an evangelist and apologist rather than practicing medicine.

There are many reasons Qureshi’s story is compelling to me, not just the Pakistan connection.  There has always been part of me that wishes I had a story like that.  It’s not just that I was raised in a Christian home and that my family went to the other side of the world as Christians.  Of all my siblings, I stayed on the straight and narrow path of evangelical Christianity all through.

I think about that when I meet with my Confirmands, most of whom have similarly been raised in strong Christian homes to follow Jesus.  I ask them when Jesus became personal to them.  Some of them can give me a date and time or an event and place.  Others have believed all along, as I did.  Some are very honest with me about their questions and struggles.  Almost all of them will at some point wrestle with deep doubts about faith, and some of them will walk away from the Christian faith as surely and definitively as Nabeel Qureshi walked away from his Muslim faith.  Right now I’m in the midst of meeting with each of them one on one to go over what we might call their midterm exam.  It’s an essay titled, “My Faith in Christ.”  I am keenly aware this whole journey of Confirmation is only one small part of their story.  Some of them already think they know all the answers, and they don’t even know many of the questions yet.

In Matthew 16, Jesus meets with his Confirmands – the disciples.  They are a diverse group – a bunch of fishermen who abandoned their nets like Qureshi laid down his stethoscope, a Zealot whose passion had for the law and for his people, a former tax collector who had collaborated with the Romans in his early life. One of the twelve has not bought into Jesus and never will – but no one except Jesus knows that yet.

This story is Jesus’ own version of a Confirmation essay.  I don’t know if he met with them all one on one or not, but he clearly wants to know what they understand so far.  He removes them from what has become a chaotic public ministry.  Everywhere this band of homeless men goes, they invite attention – sometimes from the diseased needing a cure, sometimes from the demonic seeking deliverance, sometimes from the spiritually thirsty listening to his teaching, sometimes from the outcasts asking to be loved, sometimes from the misguided wanting relief from Rome, sometimes from the religious leaders who constantly scrutinize and criticize.  But there’s always somebody wanting something.  The disciples have heard the preaching, soaked in the teaching, joined the crowds in amazement at the miracles, and vicariously gloated when the Pharisees and scribes were put in their place by a profound and fresh response from Jesus that turned their attack on its head and only validated Jesus further.

So Jesus removes himself and his disciples from all that attention, and they walk together 25 miles north to what Matthew calls “the region of Caesarea Philippi.”  It’s either when they get there – or perhaps on the way (Mark 8:27) that the conversation Matthew records in chapter 16 takes place.

He’s preparing them to be world-changers.  If you are going to change the world, you need to settle in your own heart the answers to some critical questions.

Who do others say Jesus is? (13-14)

Jesus arrives in this area and asks his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  “Son of Man” is Jesus’ way of referring to himself, so he’s really asking, “Who do people say I am?”  Jesus knows the answer to this question, but he wants the disciples to say what they’re hearing.  John the Baptist.  Elijah.  Jeremiah. A prophet.

What do these three names have in common?  They’re dead, for one thing.  That’s not insignificant, because in each case there was some expectation among Jews that they would come back from the dead.   Elijah, according to 1 Kings, never died.  God just whisked him away in a chariot.  In Malachi 4:5, God says, “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the day of the Lord.”  Jeremiah was present when the Jerusalem wall and temple were destroyed by the Babylonians.  A legend said he had hidden the ark of the covenant and the ark of incense, and one day he would return with those sacred objects.  John the Baptist was the most recent of the three prophets named.  He was a martyr, of course, and King Herod, who had had John beheaded in a crazy story of passion and power, had suggested that Jesus might be a resurrected John (Mark 6:16).

What’s important about all these possibilities is that they are complimentary of Jesus.  He’s doing things and saying things unique in his day and time.  To put Jesus in the same class as Elijah, Jeremiah, or John was high praise.  But it wasn’t enough.

Still today, it’s hard to find anyone, Christian or non-Christian, who doesn’t like Jesus.  Most admire his teachings.  Gandhi, a lifelong Hindu, deeply admired Jesus.  Some Buddhists consider Jesus a bodhisattva, an enlightened being.  Muslims consider him a prophet.  Nabeel Qureshi told a Christian girl who tried to witness to him in high school, “Muslims believe that Jesus was sinless and born of the Virgin Mary.  He cleansed the leprous, gave sight to the blind, and raised people from the dead.  Jesus is the Messiah, the Word of God” ( p.91).  That’s high praise, but it’s not enough.

I don’t know how much conversation Matthew condenses into a few words here, but I’m guessing hours or days worth.  It would have taken the group two or three days to walk from Galilee to the region of Caesarea Philippi.

Unfortunately, many Christians don’t want to allow more time for this part of the conversation than Matthew 16:13-14.  Especially when it comes up in a church group, we want to immediately shut down any alternate way of thinking about Jesus, as if to utter something less than classic orthodox teaching in church is somehow unworthy of our space.  But it’s important for us to know what people think of Jesus.  We need to ask the question, and struggle with the possibilities and why they matter.

Who do you say Jesus is? (15-16)

In his second question, Jesus asks the same question I ask of my Confirmands, the same question Qureshi faced.  “Who do you say I am?”  The Greek is plural, so Jesus is addressing all the disciples.  “Who do y’all say I am?”  Peter speaks for all of them.

When Linda and I visited Israel in 2011, I don’t know that there was a location that made the Bible come to life more than our visit to Caesarea Philippi. It doesn’t look like much today, but location matters. The Gettysburg Address wouldn’t have been the same if it had been the New York address or the Washington address or the Atlanta address.  Being “on location” changed what the Greeks called the pathos of Jesus’ words in this passage.

Matthew deliberately says Jesus “came to the region of Caesarea Philippi” (13).  Caesarea Philippi wasn’t a city.  There’s no archaeological evidence of private homes in the area during the time of Jesus.  It was a place where people visited, not where they lived.  A few decades before this story, King Herod the Great had chosen this site for a magnificent pagan temple, made of white marble and dedicated to Caesar.  Philip the Tetrarch had expanded and beautified Herod’s temple, and renamed the area Caesarea Philippi, in honor of Caesar and of himself.

But that’s only part of the story.  The Roman temple was erected next to a Greek temple built to the god Pan, the god of nature.  Originally the site had been called Panias, and under the Greek temple there was a deep cavern filled with water.  The Jewish historian Josephus wrote that people had tried to measure the depth of that pool, but no one had a rope long enough to reach the bottom.  The Greeks believed that this site is where Pan emerged from the underworld, the place of the dead – in Greek, Hades.  The underground spring that fed this large pool overflowed to become one of three primary headwaters of the Jordan River.

Also during the time of Jesus, there were many temples in nearby villages to the Syrian god of Baal in this vicinity.  Not far away there was a shrine where Israelites themselves had prostituted themselves in the worship of Baal, but the Syrians continued to worship at their own temples.  Baal worship was highly sensual, and this entire area would have included many symbols and male and female anatomy, and significant cultic activity involving prostitution.

It is this area that Jesus chooses to pose his most important question to the disciples:  “Who do you say that I am?”  Peter answers for the group, as he is prone to do.  Sometimes his impulsive action or words get him in trouble, as on the night before Jesus died when Peter first swore he would never deny Jesus and then did so three times, or in the passage that immediately follows this one where Jesus calls Peter “Satan.”

But this time, Peter got it right.  “You are the Christ,” he says, “the son of the living God.”  Notice the definite articles.  What separates the Christian’s view of Jesus from everyone else’s is his uniqueness – that he claimed to be God in human form and backed up that claim in word and deed.  I don’t have time today to list all the biblical background and historical context that Jesus was and is fully God, but this is what makes our faith offensive to Muslims, Hindus, and everyone else who thinks of Jesus as a prophet or a great teacher.  Read Qureshi’s book for one good readable summary of those arguments. This is what Nabeel Qureshi pushed his Christian friends on, and what he agonized over.   Jesus chose that geographical context in Caesarea Philippi, which represented all the alternate ways of viewing ultimate truth – the gods of history, the gods of politics, the unseen gods of the underworld – to have Peter confess with a series of definite articles the identity of Jesus – the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  My suspicion again is that all we’re getting is a condensation of a larger conversation and broader confession.

Of course, this takes me again to my Confirmands.  Honestly, at age 12, 13, or 14, I can tell them what I want them to say about Jesus, and most of them will say it.  I am more aware than anyone that there are many more lessons to learn.  When Peter said these words and Jesus commended him, he still did not realize their significance.  We learn in the following story that the idea of the Christ, the Son of the Living God, dying at the hands of the elders, chief priests, and scribes was nowhere in Peter’s mind at this stage of his journey.  You don’t ask people if they have everything figured out yet – just what they’ve learned so far.  And you want to hear that the center of their faith is strong – that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the Living God.

How do you know that? (17)

Jesus’ response to Peter’s confession is four-fold, and at this point we will pick up the pace.  But I think there are some additional critical questions for world changers.

Once you’ve come to the point of confessing who Jesus is, you need to realize what Jesus said to Peter:  “You are blessed, because God revealed that to you.” It’s amazing to me that some Christians, having had their hearts and minds awakened by grace through a series of events and friendships and even reasoning that only God could orchestrate, nevertheless think that they are now responsible for the conversion of others.  We need patience and trust. We need to remember it’s only God who changes hearts and changes the world.  He uses us, but he does the work.

What is your role in the Rock Church? (18)

The temples of Caesarea Philippi were built into an imposing rocky cliff.  Against that backdrop, Jesus says,  “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not stand against it.”

This is one of those passages that has been debated so much that we lose the simplicity.  First, the reference to “gates of Hades” indicates that at least part of this conversation took place right there in front of that rock face, in a bustling religious center of false gods, religious orgies, and spiritually destructive myths.

In a play on words, Jesus nicknames Peter “Rocky.”  That’s a compliment in any language and culture.  No Jew could hear it without thinking of many Old Testament passages where God is called a Rock.

I had lunch this week with Chris Matthews, one of our missionaries who is now back in the States for a year or two as his wife Beth pursues an advanced degree, came to one of our Bible studies this past week and then we had lunch.  He commented that the Rock Church is a recurring metaphor in Scripture that we too often ignore.  We talk about the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the flock.  But the “rock church” is also a powerful symbol.

Peter himself will later pick up on this language in his first epistle.  And he doesn’t say, “Now I’m the rock” or “My confession of Jesus is the rock.”  He doesn’t even refer to the conversation at Caesarea Philippi at all.  But it’s clear he’s allowed this image to sink deep down during the intervening years.  Peter writes, “As you come to him, the living Stone, rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him – you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood,” and he follows that with a quote from Isaiah about God’s “chosen and precious cornerstone,” which Peter connects to Jesus (1 Peter 2:4ff.).

There is so much in that passage we need to develop.  But let’s just focus on being living stones, part of the Rock Church God is creating.  That speaks to diversity (as the body metaphor does) – finding and fulfilling our ole.  But it also speaks of endurance, an endurance that does not start with you and me nor depend on us.  The church is a community of strength, of safety, of stamina.  Jesus is building it, and none of the gods of this world will change that.  Of all the things Jesus said that have a prophetic tone to them, this is one we have been able to see in fulfillment.  This is one that we are evidence of.  The church has had its ups and downs, its successes and failures, its varieties of expression, its opposition.  But it’s not only still here, it’s still changing the world because its living stones.

What doors can I unlock for the kingdom? (19)

Jesus tells Peter, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”  Once again, it’s unfortunate that this word from Jesus has been clouded over by debate.  Jesus is actually humbling Peter, because the Greek tense (future perfect) means that whatever Peter does will have already been done in heaven.  In other words, he will be just living out on earth what God has promised and foreordained.

Nevertheless, he has great privilege and opportunity to unlock the kingdom for others.   Peter used his keys at Pentecost when 3000 were baptized.  Later in Acts, he opened the door to the Gentiles with the story of Cornelius.  Everywhere he went, he used those keys – but so do you and I.

It’s an incredible privilege and opportunity for us as well to be prepared with the right questions to open the kingdom to others.  But even when we do, it’s important for our humility to remember that we are only doing on earth what God has done in heaven.  There’s no glory in being used as his witnesses, and no guilt on our part for those who do not respond.  Salvation is a transaction between each person and God; we are simply messengers and servants.

When should I speak and when should I be silent? (20)

Verse 20 is surprising, isn’t it?   “Then he warned his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Christ.”  In other words, “Shhh!  Don’t tell anyone.”  This at first seems an odd place and time for them to be silent.  These people around Caesarea Philippi need truth!  And the disciples now “get it,” right?

Well, no, they don’t.  They are not ready to bear witness to Jesus until they understand him more fully.  The cross and resurrection will make their understanding of Jesus complete.

What I find fascinating is that even Jesus doesn’t preach a sermon in Caesarea Philippi.  Nor does he teach and heal.  He doesn’t challenge the pagan gods in their temples the way he will challenge the Sadducees and Pharisees in the Jerusalem temple.  He doesn’t engage in one on one evangelism.

There are times to speak and times to be silent.  Nabeel Qureshi speaks of “street preachers” who had no discernment about this, and not enough genuine concern to build a relationship with those they were trying to reach.  The Christians whom God used to touch Nabeel were believers who loved him as a person, lived out the faith in front of him, and waited for the right moments to share Christ.

Unlikely converts

In the end, we are all unlikely converts with the potential to be world changers.  That distinction is not reserved for the Qureshis and MartinLuthers and Apostle Pauls of the world.  Because we are alienated from God by nature, it is only by his grace that any of us overcomes our past – whether it’s not enough religion or too much in the home, whether it’s the pride of self-sufficiency or the pride of spiritual arrogance, whether our parents loved Jesus as God, only revered him as a prophet, or knew nothing of him.  Only God can and does take the human heart and rescue it.

It’s essential not only for our salvation but for our witness that we say in the words of the hymn, “Rock of Ages,” “Nothing in my hands I bring; simply to the cross I cling.”  This encounter of Jesus with his disciples in Caesarea Philippi brings me right back to that awareness that even though I don’t have that great story of dramatic conversion, I too am a “living stone” that God uses in a unique way to change the world.  Amen.


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