Witness

Scriptures: Romans 12:1-8; Matthew 16:13-23

The name of this sermon is “Witness.” So let’s start with, what does it mean? It is both a noun and a verb, but it’s fascinating because it is a noun only when it is also used as a verb. In other words, you can’t be a witness unless you witness something. So it is only a noun when also used as a verb.

So how do we use it?

  • We use it when we have something revealed to us in the actions of someone else.
  • We use it when we relate or show what has been revealed.

Thus we are witness to something, and then we witness to something. (Can you tell I had fun with the word-plays on this one?)

The difficulty in witnessing to anything, for people, is our own filters and preconceptions. Any cop, judge, or lawyer can tell you that no two people see an accident or other event the same. The details are always different. In fact, one of the signs that there has been what is called collusion is that the stories are too similar.

It is with that in mind that we approach today’s passage of Scripture. But before we get to it, I’d like to share an illustration that I found in a sermon. The person who wrote it was apparently British, so if there’s some British terminology, bear with me.

A friend of mine loves to tell of an incident she witnessed one summer morning on a platform of the London Underground Central Line. She was standing – cheek by jowl – with hundreds of other commuters in the sultry, summertime heat, when a man standing next to her turned a funny colour and collapsed in a heap onto the platform.

An official from London Transport appeared and pleaded for people to ‘stand back’ and give the collapsed passenger breathing space. He also called for any doctors on the platform to identify themselves. Naturally, most people did exactly the opposite and crowded round for a better look. The official pleaded again for everyone to move back and for any doctors present to come forward. This time, everyone did move back.

Everyone, that is, except for a six-foot-six West Indian man, sensibly dressed for summer in shorts and a string vest and sporting a thick set of dreadlocks. The tall young man knelt down beside the passenger and – in so doing – trod on the station official’s last remaining nerve. The official let the young man have it with both barrels.

‘Will you please move back and go and find a doctor!’ he thundered. The young man looked at the official and said with grace and patience ‘I am a doctor.’

The startled station official replied ‘But you don’t look like a doctor.’ The young man smiled in reply and said, ‘This is what a doctor looks like’ and proceeded to move the unconscious passenger into the recovery position.

The station official had let his preconceived ideas of what a doctor looks like get the better of him – a reminder to us all that preconceptions – especially preconceptions about people – more often than not prove to be misconceptions.

In the preceding chapters of Matthew 14-15, Jesus is on the move. He is teaching, preaching, healing, doing miracles, and challenging the religious establishment. He is steadily moving north. The context for this morning’s passage is as north as you can get there.

Caesarea Philippi was the northernmost territory in Israel. It was a Gentile center for pagan worship, and most inhabitants considered the emperor a “god.” Located at the foot of snow-covered Mt. Hermon, this area was a beautiful place to rest and pray. It was at Caesarea Philippi that he asked his disciples two questions that would change the course of history.

Scripture says “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, He asked his disciples, ‘Who do the people say the Son of Man is?”

Luke tells us he was praying before he asked this question. Jesus identifies himself here as the “Son of Man,” which was a term for the Messiah from the book of Daniel. He is not interested in an opinion poll. This question was ultimately designed to set up the next, more important, question. But the first thing he asks is essentially “What’s the word on the street about me?”

Everyone had an opinion about Jesus. If you would go to the market, people would be talking about Jesus and his miracles. If you went to the synagogue, you would hear heated discussion about the wandering rabbi from Galilee.

In fact, the religious leaders, some of them, had decided that he was demon-possessed. Even his mother and siblings thought he had lost his mind, as Matthew 3:31 shows. Some said he was a saint; some said he was a demon.

Unfortunately, most people were very confused about who Jesus was. Their replies, frankly, make me think of a Family Feud episode. I can see Richard Dawson saying “So who do they say the Son of Man is?” And they huddle together and one of them says, “John the Baptist.” And Dawson says, “Let’s see John the Baptist!” Then others would say Elijah, and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.

The disciples have been out among the people. They have heard the whispers. Three theories had emerged about who Jesus was. None of them right…

First, one of the disciples reports that some people think he is John the Baptist, who was a national hero who stood up to the Pharisees. But this is a really strange theory, since John the Baptist was a contemporary of Jesus. In fact, they were cousins. It was John the Baptist who baptized Jesus, and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

They lived at the same time and ministered in the same areas. John was beheaded for confronting Herod because of his adulterous relationship. Some people thought that the spirit of John the Baptist had somehow entered Jesus. In fact, we know from Matt 14:2 that Herod Antipas thought this very thing.

John preached with power that pointed to the coming of the Lamb. But Jesus was the Lamb.

Second, the rumor was going around that Jesus was Elijah. In a strange way, at least this made more sense. Elijah didn’t die but was caught up to heaven in a whirlwind on a chariot of fire. Elijah also performed supernatural acts of healing, even raising people from the dead.

Malachi had predicted that Elijah would return and announce the coming of the Messiah. But as we know, this prophesy pointed to John the Baptist’s ministry, not Jesus. Elijah was also a man of intense, powerful prayer who prayed that it wouldn’t rain and it didn’t for three years. (And you think we’ve had a dry summer.)

Third, many were saying that Jesus was Jeremiah come back to life. Jeremiah was known as the “weeping prophet” because of his compassion. They were both examples of patient endurance in the face of unfair suffering. As people watched Jesus love the unlovable, care for the marginalized, and weep over people far from God, they couldn’t help connecting the two. And then Jesus could also have been one of the other prophets.

Do you notice what all three of these theories have in common? The people identified Jesus with figures in the past, instead of acknowledging that Jesus was unique. After all that Jesus had said and done, he couldn’t have just be an ordinary man. Napoleon was quoted as saying, “I know men, and Jesus Christ is no mere man.” The crowd was confused. So they guessed. And they guessed wrong.

Jesus was really more interested in what his disciples thought, so then he asked a second question. This question and the answer and the subsequent verses I read are what I want to focus on.

“’But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say that I am?’” The Greek of this sentence is very strong. “You” is at the head of the sentence for emphasis, and then in the body of the sentence again. It is repeated. It was an intensely personal question, directed right at the disciples, and it required a personal answer.

What we discover is that with all that they have witnessed, they too are blinded by their misconceptions. What those were, we will cover in a moment, but note first that Peter, as their spokesman, replies. And he makes a declaration that identifies Christ as he truly is – the Son of Man is also the Son of the Living God. He is God Himself.

Christ notes that it was not Peter but the Spirit that gave him this witness. Why is that? How did Christ know it wasn’t Peter himself – who loved Jesus – who had made this declaration? (I mean, aside from the fact that Jesus was God Himself and knew everything).

Let me suggest that Jesus knew that the only way Peter could know, at that point in time, was if the Spirit had revealed it – had witnessed to Peter about Christ, as it were. And it was only momentary. Peter pretty much proves that when he tries to rebuke Jesus.

Emboldened by the praise a few minutes before, and always able to put his foot in his mouth, Peter tries to rebuke Jesus after Jesus takes Peter’s announcement as the opportunity to explain just what it meant to be Messiah.

Peter’s preconceptions and expectations, as a Jew, about the Messiah, prevented him from realizing what Jesus was saying was also a true revelation from God. Peter turned away from the Spirit, and tried to speak on his own account, with his own understanding, on the basis of his own emotions and love. And he gets one of the harshest rebukes in the New Testament for a consequence.

Apparently, as we look at this passage, it doesn’t just take the Spirit to open the disciples’ eyes to the revelation of who Jesus is. It also takes the Holy Spirit to enable them to witness to that revelation with both power and understanding. So they need the Spirit to witness what the Spirit is witnessing to them about Christ, and then they need the Spirit so that they can witness properly to what they witnessed.

Let me say that one again. They need the Spirit to witness what the Spirit is witnessing to them about Christ, and then they need the Spirit so they can witness properly to what they witnessed. (I bet you can guess where I got the name for this sermon.)

Later on, at Pentecost, the Spirit came upon Peter and the others in power, giving them a new witness. They told the truth of God with power and assurance, guided always by the Spirit in what they said and did. And their very lives – like what Paul spoke of in his letter to the Romans – testified to their faith. Through what they said, through what they did, they gave witness to who Christ was and what Christ had done and achieved.

That hasn’t changed. It is the same today as back then. It is the same for us as disciples of Christ as it was for them. CS Lewis once noted there were only three choices you could make about Jesus – Lord, Liar, or Lunatic. But the only way to get to the choice of Lord is if the Spirit has already opened your eyes to the possibility, and moved your own spirit towards Christ.

And that is what we believe, elected by God. Chosen by Him, the Spirit regenerates us. And we have an advantage that Peter didn’t have at that time he made this declaration, that he had as well as us, after Pentecost, and that is that we have the Holy Spirit within us permanently.

Always there to guide us. Always there to empower us. Always there to give us the words to say, Scripture says, if we listen, and we witness to what He is telling us.

So the real key, then, becomes, how do we know that we are witnessing by the Spirit? How do we know that we are sharing about Jesus or sharing about God’s plan in the power of the Holy Spirit?

I think, again, we see this in this passage. Pray, before we reach out and do things. That’s the first one. I’m an impulsive sort of guy, and there are times when I just suddenly do things without really thinking about it. I have to admit, it almost always gets me in a bind. My grandmother used to say, “Shortcuts make for long delays.” Pray before you reach out and do things, so that you are sure it is what you are to do.

Think before we speak. Peter obviously didn’t know that one very well. Does this glorify God, or does it further the plans of and/or glorify man/ourselves? Are we doing this for ourselves or are we doing this for God? So we need to think before we speak.

We need to compare our desires and goals with the Word. That means you need to read it. That means you need to know it. Do our desires and goals align with it? The chief end of mankind is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Is that what our desire is in this action we’re taking?

Fourthly, we need to be honest with ourselves, and try to minimize our preconceptions and filters. That may be the hardest thing of all. Because as human beings, we are really good at lying to ourselves. We are really good at making assumptions. We’ve done it since the time of the apple, with Adam and Eve.

But we need to take the time, on a regular basis, to be honest and try to minimize our preconceptions and filters. So that if somebody shows up, even though they may not look like a doctor, we can accept that they are one. So that we can look at Scriptures and see that someone who may not have looked like a Messiah, a conquering king, truly was one, and is one, and will be one.

We need to be honest with ourselves, to take off those blinders, and see Jesus so that we too can say, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” knowing that it is the Spirit that has given us this, and the love of God that has enabled it.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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