What’s In a Name?

A sermon preached on Matthew 16:13-20 by Pastor Michael Johnson at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, SD, on September 6, 2020.


If I mentioned some famous nicknames, would you be able to guess the person behind the name? How about a sports one: “The Great One.” Wayne Gretzky. “The King of Pop?” Michael Jackson. How about just “The King?” Elvis. “The Gipper?” Ronald Reagan became known as the Gipper after portraying George Gipp, a football player, in a movie.

Nicknames often give us a quick reminder of someone for something they did. When you were younger, did you ever have a nickname for something you did? Maybe you’d rather people not know the meaning. What might be the most famous, well-known nickname of all time? I would argue it is Peter. It stuck so well that we know the apostle as Peter and not Simon. Peter has become a common name, in fact, my brother is named Peter. But it was, in fact, a nickname Jesus gave to the disciple named Simon. It was a unique, potentially brand new nickname even. I personally didn’t do an exhaustive search but I did read someone this week saying that they couldn’t find any examples in ancient writings of someone being nicknamed Peter, literally “rock” before this.

Why did Jesus give Simon the nickname “Peter” which means rock. Was it because he was so strong? Was it because he was hard headed? I mean, he was. Well, today God uses this nickname not to remind us who Peter was, but to remind us who Jesus is and why we have our confidence in Christ.

Our reading takes place in the later part of Jesus’ ministry. He has preached to large and small crowds alike. We saw with the feeding of the 5,000, some people just followed Jesus to see what he would do next. Some genuinely thought he might be the Messiah but didn’t understand what that meant. But, before Jesus begins his final push toward Calvary, Jesus wanted to make sure that his twelve disciples knew exactly who he was. To get them thinking, he asked them: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” In other words, who do people say I am?

They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” Well… Some say John the Baptist. Herod had put John to death and he feared Jesus was John come back to life. Maybe others thought that too. Some think you’re Elijah. After all, not only was Elijah one of the great prophets of the Old Testament, he was one of two people in the Old Testament to never die. God took him to heaven in a fiery chariot. There were prophecies of a prophet like Elijah paving the way for the Messiah. However, that was John the Baptist. He was the Elijah who paved the way. Others think you’re Jeremiah. Maybe the people heard Jesus scold the religious leaders, calling them a brood of vipers or a den of robbers. Maybe it reminded them how Jeremiah scolded the leaders of his day and the trouble it brought him.

Jesus didn’t actually need to ask his disciples what the people thought. He knew and had been dealing with true followers and fake fans for a while. But Jesus wanted to test and teach his disciples, so he asks, “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” Peter answers for the group: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus is overjoyed and responds: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

Can you hear the joy in Jesus’ voice? He says, Simon, from now on you’ll be known as Petras, “Rock.” Why, because on this rock – not Peter, as some have claimed, but on the rock solid confession, God was going to build his church. A strong name and a strong reminder for the disciples as Jesus headed toward Calvary.

That nickname, rock, is a good reminder for you and me too. Why? Peter was anything but an unshakeable rock as a person. Yes, it was Peter we saw a couple weeks ago who had firm faith and say from a boat in a storm “Lord, if it’s you, let me walk out to you” and then he walked on water…and promptly began sinking. Peter was the one who gave this incredible confession…and then would later tell Jesus he wasn’t allowed to die. He was the one who stood like a rock saying “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will” (Matthew 26:33)… and hours later was denying he even knew who Jesus was. The Bible shows times Peter was a pillar of unshakeable faith and many times he was like shifting sand, filled with doubt.

What about you? Is your faith unshakeable? Or do you feel like you’re on a roller coaster of ups and downs. That’s why it’s good for us to see that the rock God would build his church on wasn’t Peter, it was the confession of who Jesus is. It is good to see that Jesus wasn’t filled with joy because of Peter himself or because he had come up with a great idea himself; Jesus was filled with joy because God the Father had revealed this truth to Peter. And you and I are the same. We did not work out our faith as our catechism puts it by our own thinking or choosing.

Left up to myself, boy am I hopeless. But God has sent his Holy Spirit into our hearts to create that wonderful gift of faith. For many of us he even did it as you were just a little baby and a pastor poured some water on your head saying, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” It is through that faith that I can confess that I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord. It is through that faith that I can say that Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father…and he always will. It is through the eyes of faith God has given me that I know God is working for my good, never taking a break, working for the good of his church. He assures you that no other power; no government, no terrorists rioting in the streets, not even the gates of hell will be able to over power him…or his church…or his children.

Do you have faith like that? Yes! Yes, you do. You and I believe Jesus is the Christ because God has revealed him to us through his Word and washed your sins away in the waters of baptism. Know you are forgiven and free beyond a doubt in Jesus.

Now that frustrates the devil to no end. So he will try and do anything to pull us away from Jesus, to get our eyes off of Jesus. He wants to shake you to prove that you’re nothing like a rock. He wants to take our eyes off of Jesus. He wants me to focus on the chaos of 2020 and focus on the idea that the world might end if my candidate doesn’t get elected this year. He wants to cause trouble. And sometimes he will. He wants to cause sadness. And sometimes he will. He wants to cause heartbreak. And sometimes he will.

But Jesus reminds us today an important truth: “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Satan can try all he wants. He will never crush Christ’s church. And you are part of Christ’s church. When Jesus fought his battle against the devil, his triumph will never fade. When Jesus declared “It is finished.” You are still forgiven today. His Easter victory will never fade away. In fact, you are living proof of Jesus’ victory. As I look at you, I see a bunch of solid rocks. In fact, the Bible calls you living stones, built on our chief corner stone, Jesus. One day, Jesus will return again and prove his victory to the entire world.

In our reading, the disciples got it right. Then Jesus told them not to tell anyone. Why did he say that? Well, the time wasn’t quite right. He hadn’t died. He hadn’t risen or ascended yet. Well, we have perfect 20/20 hindsight now. Now, the time is right. Since the time is right, God has given you a new nickname: Christian. You are a follower of Christ, in fact you are to be like Christ to others. Show people the real person behind that name – show them Christ. You follow Christ. You listen to him, you love him because he loved you. Now by your life, confess him.

You see what’s going on in our nation right now. Some say it is nothing but doom and gloom. I look at it and say, the time is right. Tell them of Jesus. He is the Christ. And no matter the chaos we see in our world, his church will stand forever. Amen.