ICHTHUS: Jesus Christ, God's Only Son, Our Lord

Original Date: 
Sunday, May 7, 2017

Matthew 16:13-18 ICHTHUS: Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord

A Familiar Symbol
When Christianity started, the dominant culture was not always friendly toward it. After all, it was the Jewish Authorities that wanted Jesus dead, and it was the Romans who killed Him. Neither group was particularly excited about the notion that Jesus had come back to life.

Things got worse under the reign of Emperor Nero, which started in the year 54. Nero was power hungry and probably insane, and he decided to blame Christians for the great fire of 64 which burned nearly half of Rome. He institutionalized state sponsored persecution of Christians and it was probably under his reign that both Peter and Paul were executed.

Other emperors followed suit, judging allegiance to Jesus to be a direct threat to their power. Christians confessed that “Jesus is Lord.” The Emperor wanted them to confess that “Caesar is Lord.”

And so, it was dangerous to be a Christian. Christians could be harassed, tortured and even killed for believing in Jesus. It could be bad for business. In some situations you had to keep your faith in Christ a secret.

But, at the same time, there needed to be a way to let other believers know you were out there. You wanted other Christians to know they were safe in your presence. You wanted other believers to know they could talk about Jesus with you.

And so, a symbol was created. It looked like a fish. Two simply curved lines making a point on one end and crossing near the back. You’ve probably seen them on the back of cars. Maybe you’ve got one yourself. Christians began drawing these little guys on their doorposts, on cave walls, in their places of business.

I even imagine two strangers meeting and having a conversation on the side of the road. After a little while, one of them takes his foot and draws a curved line in the sand. No big deal, just talking about the weather. And then, a bit later, the other takes his foot and draws the other line, completing the fish. Without a word said about Jesus, both men now know they share a common faith.

So, why a fish? A lot of people think it is because there are a lot of fish in the Jesus stories: Peter and the others were fishermen; Jesus turned five loaves of bread and two fish into a meal for five thousand; Jesus ate fish on the beach after the resurrection.

But, actually, it wasn’t about the object, so much as the word. The Greek word for fish is “Ichthus.” In Greek, that word is 5 letters (the “ch-“ are the letter “chi” and the “th-” are the letter “theta”), and they form an acrostic for the Greek words “Iesous,” “Christos,” “Theou,” “Uios,” and “Sotor”.

In English, that’s: “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”

In other words: this little fish symbol… one of the earliest known symbols of Christianity… one of the ways Christians communicated with one another under the noses of those who would persecute them… was also one of Christianity’s earliest Creeds. It was a declaration about who Jesus is. It was a confession of faith in His unique identity and importance.
And you can see the similarity between what “Ichthus” stood for and the beginning of the second section of the Apostles’ Creed:
• Ichthus means “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.”
• The Creed says: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.”

A Subversive Act
We are in the midst of a series of sermons guided by the Apostles’ Creed. This is one of the oldest, and best known, summaries of what Christians believe. It wasn’t written by the Apostles, but we believe it is an accurate reflection of what the Apostles teach.

Each week between now and the middle of July I am taking a line from the Creed and then showing how it teaches what the Bible teaches. I’m not preaching from the Creed, I’m still preaching from the Bible. But we are letting the Creed guide us.

Historically, the Creed has been used as a regular feature in Christian worship. For a good 1000 years Christians have been standing and reciting this Creed together. I think that’s a cool thing. It unites us to Christians in a lot of different denominations, across a lot of different cultures, and over a long expanse of time. Saying the Creed reminds us that we are a part of something that is pretty big. We’re going to do that again today, but we’ll wait and say it at the end of the service.

And, I’ve been telling you that when we say these words we are saying three things: We are saying 1) I agree, I believe these things are true; 2) I pledge, I commit myself to this God; and 3) I trust, I am giving my life to Him.

But there’s another thing, and it is suggested by the story of the Ichthus: When we recite the Creed together, it is also a subversive act. It is a way of rebelling against the dominant culture:
For the first Christians, it was a way of saying: “I believe in Jesus, I don’t believe in Caesar.” “Caesar gets my taxes, but Jesus gets my life.”

And, in the same way, when we recite the Creed we are rejecting the popular narratives of the day. We are saying that we reject the popular concepts of how life works, of the meaning of life, of what’s really important. When we stand and recite the creed it is a way of saying “I reject materialism; I reject the idea that what I can see is all that there is; I reject the idea that I should look out for myself and myself alone; I reject the shallow and superficial; and I pledge my allegiance to the triune God of the Bible: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

To believe the Apostles’ Creed is to take a stand. It is, if you will, a line in the sand.

And the central part of the Creed, the crucial part of it, is the part about Jesus. The Creed has three parts, corresponding to the Trinity. Father, Son, Holy Spirit. But it is not an exaggeration to say that it all hinges on Jesus. There are 114 words in our version of the Creed, and 74 of them are about Jesus. What you believe about Jesus makes all the difference in whether you are going to go along with the dominant culture or be a Christian. As Ray Pritchard says:

The Christian faith is all about Jesus! He is the heart and core, the touchstone of all that we believe. You can be mistaken on some secondary issues and still be a Christian, but if you are wrong about Jesus, you are wrong in the worst possible place. http://www.keepbelieving.com/sermon/the-incomparable-christ-jesus-christ...

So, here’s the line again: “I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.” There are three things said about Jesus: He is the Christ, His God’s only Son, He is our Lord.

There are a lot of Bible passages that teach these three things about Jesus, but one in particular where you can find all three. So let’s turn there now. Matthew 16:13-18. Here’s where we are going to see the declaration that Jesus is the Christ, He is God’s Son, and He is our Lord. Matthew 16:13-18:

13 When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
14 They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”
15 “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”

Stop here a second. The question: “Who is Jesus?” is an important question. Obviously, the people on the street have been talking. People are wondering who Jesus is and they’ve got some crazy ideas. They’ve never seen anyone like Him, so they are comparing Him to some of the great prophets, floating notions of reincarnation, even considering the possibility that he has been possessed by the ghost of his second cousin, the recently be-headed John the Baptist.

But Jesus doesn’t really care what the people out there think. What He really wants to know is: what do His disciples think? Verse 16:

16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 18 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.

Now, looking through my notes this week, I realized I’ve preached on this passage quite a few times. Just a few weeks ago I preached on Mark’s version of this story. But always before, I’ve preached on some periphery part of this story. I’ve preached on what Jesus says about building His church. I’ve preached on the wrong answers people gave about who Jesus was. A few weeks ago, when we were in Mark, I preached about Jesus’ call to carry our cross that comes right after this.

But I was surprised to see that I have never preached a sermon on the central part of this passage, the key part: Peter’s confession. I’ve never just zeroed in on verse 16. But that’s what we’re going to do today.

So, who is Jesus? He is the Messiah, the son of the Living God. He is: Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. Three things:

In Caesarea
First, Jesus is the Christ. He is the Messiah. He is the promised king.

Depending on your translation, Peter either says “You are the Christ” or “You are the Messiah.” I have the 1984 NIV in my office. It says “Christ.” This is the 2011 NIV. It says “Messiah.” Both are right.

As you have probably heard me say before, “Christ” is simply the Greek translation of the Hebrew word “Messiah.” Christ is not a last name. It is not a part of Jesus’ name. It’s a title. An honorific. It’s like calling me “Pastor” Russell or saying “President” Trump. Truthfully, instead of calling him “Jesus Christ” we should really call Him “Jesus, the Christ.” Because Jesus is His name, and Christ is His title, His position.

And pay attention to the article here. It’s important. Jesus is THE Christ. He is THE Messiah. Not “a messiah”. Not one of many. He’s THE One.

So what does Messiah mean? What is the Christ? To put it simply, He’s the expected one. He’s the one the prophets have been predicting, the one the Israelites have been waiting for, the hero, the rescuer, that was going to come and set things right.

More specifically, Messiah means “anointed one.” In the Old Testament kings were regularly anointed as a sign of God’s approval of them.

So THE Messiah was the one the Israelites were waiting for who would be THE King, their King. To call Jesus Messiah is to call Him King.

Now, let me stop and say something about where this conversation is happening. Matthew is very careful to tell us that Jesus asks His question in the location of Caesarea Phlippi. Mark says the same thing.

Caesarea Phillippi was actually a Roman City built in Israel. One of Herod the Great’s sons, Philip, founded the city shortly after Jesus’ birth. He named it Caesarea to curry favor with the Roman Emperor Augustus, at whose pleasure he was allowed to keep his power. It would have been considered a modern city at the time, with Roman architecture and baths. The Roman officials who spent time in Israel much preferred to stay in Caesarea, as opposed to the more primitive city of Jerusalem.

Of all the reminders that the Romans were in charge in Israel, none were more obvious than this big, out-of-place, city.

So, when Peter says to Jesus: “You are the Messiah;” it is very significant that he is standing in the shadow of Caesarea Phillippi. Talk about subversive acts. He’s calling Jesus the King in the shadow of the crown jewel of the Roman Empire. He’s saying: “Jesus, you are the King, and you’re king over all earthly powers.”

Do you get that? Remember, Rome was big. Rome was powerful. Rome ruled the world from India to England. They held sway in southern Europe, Northern Africa, and Eastern Asia. And all this without an air force. If a rebellion fires up, it’ll take you two years to march your troops out there. And yet, they ruled. And they ruled for like 8 centuries.

But Peter stands in the shadow of their might and says “You’re THE king.” That’s what Christ means.

The Same Substance
Second, Jesus is God’s only Son. Peter says He is “the Son of the living God.”

Now, again, pay attention to the article. It’s important here. Jesus is THE Son of God. He’s the one and only.

Things start to get complicated here. This is where we start to run up against the limitations of human language to express things about an infinite, eternal, all-powerful God. Here’s where we run into things like the Trinity, the mind-bending concept that God is 3 persons and one essence.

There is a sense in which we could say every human on earth is a son or daughter of God. God is the Father. He created all of us. We are all His children. And, in another sense, when we become Christians the Bible says that we are adopted into God’s family. We become brothers and sisters of Jesus and we become heirs of eternal life.

But when the Bible talks about the Sonship of Jesus, it is saying something distinctly different about Him. John 3:16 calls Him God’s “one and only Son.” Older English translations have that has “God’s only begotten Son.” What the Bible is saying is that there is something unique about the relationship between Jesus and the Father. Jesus is God’s Son in a way no one else is, and no one else can be.

And Peter is saying that here. That’s why the definite article matters. That’s why the NIV helps us out by capitalizing the word Son. Jesus is “THE Son of the living God.”

Now, again, language can trip us up. Talking about Sonship and using a word like “begotten” can make it seem like Jesus is created, or that He is some sort of demi-god born out of a union between God the Father and Mary. But the Bible does not teach that. The Bible goes out of its way, again and again, to say that Jesus is not simply the issue of God, but that He is God Himself. To call Him Son is to say something about His unique position in the Godhead, but it is not a claim about when He came to be.

This all came to a head rather early in the church’s history. Around 325 a pastor named Arius began teaching that Jesus was a created being. His bishop corrected him, but Arius chose to defy the bishop and convinced others to believe as he did. It became known as Arianism and it didn’t take long for a council of bishops to be called to determine what the church believed about Jesus.

They met in Nicea and the result was the Nicene Creed. In many ways the Nicene Creed is similar to the Apostles’ Creed, but it has more words and gets more detailed in its description of Jesus. Specifically, it says:

We believe…. in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father

The key words there are “begotten, not made” and “same essence as the Father.” This is where Christianity settled on the divine nature of Jesus and the Trinity. This is where Christianity agreed that the Son is not the Father, but the Son and the Father are one.

Again, the limitations of human language make it hard to express the nature of an infinite, eternal, all-powerful God. But this was the best way to understand the Biblical information then, and Christians ever since, for the most part, have agreed.

To Be His Very Own
So, when we get to Jesus in the Creed we confess that we believe in 1) Jesus Christ, 2) God’s only Son, and 3) Our Lord.

If we go back to the conversation at Caesarea, we don’t see this concept of Lordship in Peter’s confession in verse 16, but we can pick it up in Jesus’ response in verse 18:

18 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.

The thing to pay attention to here is the pronouns. Jesus says “I will build my church.” Jesus is claiming ownership and responsibility. It’s His church.

And what is the church? It’s those who believe in Him. It’s those who belong to Him.

I think it is interesting that the Creed, at this point, calls Jesus “our Lord.” It doesn’t say “the Lord.”

It could. We certainly believe that a day is coming when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord. (Phil. 2:11) We believe that Jesus is the rightful ruler over the entire universe and someday everybody will recognize that truth and pay homage to Him.

But that rule and reign has not yet been fully recognized. And the Creed recognizes that. By saying “our Lord” we’re really saying that right now, Jesus is Lord of the church. He’s my Lord, and if you have already given your life to Him, then He’s your Lord. But for those outside of the church, He’s not Lord yet.

So the Creed is being personal here. It is focused more on Jesus’ personal rule in my life than it is on His eventual rule over the whole world. At least, that’s how the Catechism takes it.

It has been fun for me, these last few weeks, to sort of reengage with the Heidelberg Catechism. As I said last week, I am being reminded of what a wonderful document this Catechism is. And here’s how it talks about this phrase, question and answer number 34:

34 Q. Why do you call Him “Our Lord”?
A. Because—
not with gold or silver,
but with his precious blood—
he has set us free
from sin and from the tyranny of the devil,
and has bought us,
body and soul,
to be his very own.

Jesus has bought us. He has paid a dear price—his precious blood—and so we belong—body and soul—to Him. He’s our Lord. He’s our master. And so we surrender our lives to Him.

The Ichthus acrostic stands for “Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.” The Creed confesses faith in “Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, Our Lord.” Savior and Lord are the differences. But here you can see how those two ideas combine. Because Jesus is our savior, He is our Lord. Because He has paid the price for our salvation, we now belong entirely to Him.

One of my favorite illustrations of what Jesus has done for us actually comes from the Old Testament. It’s in the prophecy of Zechariah, the third chapter.

Zechariah has this vision of the high priest at the time, a man named Joshua. And Joshua is in a courtroom, standing before the Angel of the Lord. As high priest, Joshua represents all the people of God. As high priest, he’s the one who goes into the Lord’s presence on the Day of Atonement to pay for all of Israel’s sins.

But the problem is, in Zechariah’s vision, Joshua’s clothes are filthy. In fact, that word, “filthy”, is the strongest word available in Hebrew for describing all manner of foulness. The idea is that Joshua is covered with dirt and blood and human waste. It is clothing stained by corrupted flesh.

This isn’t good, because according to the Old Testament rules in Exodus and Leviticus, the high priest’s clothing is usually immaculate. There are all sorts of rules for how the high priest should be dressed.

And standing with Joshua before the angel of the Lord is Satan, acting like a prosecuting attorney. It’s his job to accuse Joshua, to convict him and the people of sin. And all Satan has to do is point at the dirty clothes, point out how filthy they are, to make his case: “These people are sinful, they deserve punishment. Just look at them!” This is the tyranny of the devil.

But the LORD doesn’t agree with Satan. Instead, He rebukes Satan. Joshua is His chosen servant, Israel is His chosen people, they are sticks saved from the fire. So, instead of convicting Joshua on the basis of his dirty clothes, God changes his wardrobe. In a sort of divine makeover, he takes away the filthy clothes saying “See, I have taken away your sin” and puts a clean turban on his head and a sparkling white robe on his body.

That, I believe, is a prophecy of what Jesus would do for us when He died on the cross. Purchasing us with His precious blood he sets us free from sin and the tyranny of the devil. He is our savior, and thus He becomes our Lord.

THE Issue
That’s what we confess when we say: “I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord.” It is our subversive act against the dominant narrative of the culture. It is our pledge of allegiance to the one who is the King over everything, the only Son of the Father, the one who has bought and paid for our very lives.

Let me conclude by saying that what you do with Jesus is THE issue. You have to decide what you believe about Jesus. You have to decide what you believe about Him

Everybody on earth and every religion does something with Jesus Christ. Nobody tries to deny that He was a real person. There’s just too much information, and too much has happened since his death and resurrection, to try to claim that He is just made up. So you have to have some sort of opinion about Him.

The Muslims believe in Jesus. In fact, Jesus is mentioned multiple times in the Qur'an. They call him 'Isa. They believe he is a prophet sent from God and one of God's best prophets, but they don’t believe in the resurrection. They believe that if he was crucified, He must have survived it. To them Jesus is simply one of the greatest prophets God ever sent to mankind.

Jews or Judaism in general view Jesus as one of a number of false messianic claimants who have led a ton of people away from the true religion of Judaism.

Hindus, or at least some Hindus, regard Jesus as the incarnation of the god Vishnu. According to Hindu belief, Vishnu is periodically incarnated into the world in forms as varied as a fish or a dwarf or a human being, and Vishnu comes into the world in order to preserve or sustain life or restore order on the earth.

Others, some break-offs from Christianity, say that Jesus isn’t really God, but He’s the first among men. He was blessed by God, and served God better than anyone else, and maybe some day we can be like Him—but He’s not really God.

Atheists or agnostics usually believe he was a good teacher or an example to emulate. They see him as a historical figure and think of him today in much the same way they think about George Washington: "Yeah, he did some good stuff. He’s a good example. Tell the truth about cherry trees and that sort of thing. But I don't know what bearing that has on my life today."

Still others, maybe call them nominal Christians, “in name only,” see Jesus as a good add-on but not necessarily the King of their lives. Jesus is a type of genie in a bottle that we can pray too when we really need something. He doesn’t really demand much of us, but when all is said and done, he's simply an errand boy who goes and grabs us other things to make us more comfortable.

The real question, though, is: “Who do you say Jesus is?” What do you believe about Him? I believe the Creed is an accurate summary of what the Bible teaches. I confess the creed and I mean it, I really do believe that Jesus is the Christ, the only Son of God, my Lord.

But what about you? What do you believe about Him? You have to decide what you believe about Jesus.

So, we haven’t recited the Creed yet. We’re going to do that now. And in my imagination, I picture us, when we get to the second part, the part about Jesus, I picture us really punching that. You know what I mean? I’m thinking we need to take a collective breath, after the God the Father part, and then say the part about Jesus with all the conviction we can muster. This is our act of defiance. This is our pledge of allegiance

So would you stand with me?

Christians, what do you believe?

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord.
He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit
and born of the Virgin Mary.
He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried.
He descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again.
He ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.