"I Will Build My Church"
(Delivered Sunday, June 17, 2007 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references are taken from The Holy Bible, New King James Version; copyright 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc.)
Sometimes, I think of preaching through a book of the Bible as a little like flying across the country in an airplane. There are times when it's appropriate to fly high and get a broad view of the vast landscape. But there are other times when it's appropriate to land the plane, get out, and walk around for a while—getting to know a particular piece of territory and taking in the scenery.
We're in a part of our journey through Matthew in which its appropriate to stop, get out, and stay a while; because we're studying together from one of the most important passages in all of Matthew's Gospel. In fact, I'd say that it's one of the most important passages of Scripture in the Bible.
Matthew 16:13-19 says;
This passage is important because it contains "the blessed confession"—that is, that crucial expression of faith concerning the identity of Jesus Christ that immediately received Christ's own blessing. It's the confession of His identity that He says came not from "flesh and blood", but was the direct revelation of His Father to mankind. It's the confession that each individual woman and man must believe—from the heart—in order to be saved. It's the confession of Jesus that affirms Him to be "the Christ, the Son of the living God". And so, it's important that we not rush through such a passage. We need to linger at it, take our time with it, and draw out the precious truths that the Holy Spirit has preserved for us in it.
Last week, we spent our time considering that very important confession itself. It's the confession upon which Jesus promised to build His church. And now, this week, I ask that we limit our thoughts to just verse 18; and to what it has to teach us about the permanency and security of the church that Jesus promised to build upon that confession.
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We live in a world in which almost everything is "temporary", and is destined to pass-away.1 We see this all the time; and it's a reality that we have to live with in everyday life. In fact, it's a reality that we see throughout human history. The great works of mankind; the created things that seemed so important to humanity and civilization at the time—the great kingdoms, empires, governments, nations, constitutions, laws, cities, institutions—all of them were subject to change and corruption, and to decay and eventual loss. And what was true of the great works of man in the past will prove to be true of what we consider to be so great and important today.
And if we place our ultimate hopes in these human things, we are doomed to disappointment and despair. What prospect do we have, if we place our hopes in the fallible and uncertain hands of men? What is there in this world that can endure throughout the ages of human history? What is there in this world that we can attach ourselves to, and invest ourselves in, that will last forever? What institution is there in this world today that we can be sure—no matter what—will never pass away?
Well; in this morning's passage, the Son of God Himself tells us of the one thing in this world that will not fail—that one institution that will never pass away. It is the only institution within the sphere of human experience that will last forever; because it was not instituted by man and is not maintained by men. Jesus—who, as it had just been asserted in our passage, is "the Christ, the Son of the living God"—makes the promise that, upon that blessed confession of His identity, He Himself would built His church; and that the very gates of hades itself will not prevail against it.
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It might be good to stop at this point and consider what is meant by that thing that Jesus calls "the church".
The Greek word that is translated "church" is one that you might already be familiar with. It's the word ekklasia—the word from which we draw the English word "ecclesiastical". It's a compound word; that is, it's a word that is formed by putting two words together. The root word is the passive form of the word kaleo, which means to "call" or "summon". And its prefix is the preposition "ek", which means "out of". Thus, an ekklasia is an assembly of "called-out" people.
The word ekklasia is used in the New Testament for any kind of official "assembly" of "called-out" individuals. In Acts 19:39, for example, the city clerk of the ancient city of Ephesus had to rebuke a huge mob that had gathered in protest against the preaching of the Gospel; telling them that such inquiries should only be made "in the lawful ekklasia"—that is, the official assembly of individuals "called-out" for that particular purpose. And in Acts 7:38 the vast gathering of the Jewish people who were delivered out of the bondage of Egypt and were led by Moses to the promised land were called "the ekklasia in the wilderness"—that is, the assembly of people that God had "called-out" of bondage unto Himself. Jesus is the first person to ever use the word ekklasia to describe the assembly of His redeemed followers; and this morning's verse is the first time in the Bible He uses it.
Nowhere in the Bible is the word ekklasia ever used in reference to a "building". In the biblical sense, the "church" is not a building, but is rather the "called-out assembly" of redeemed people who might meet in that building. They are called out of sin and a lost condition, and into eternal life in Christ. I think that the best description of this called-out assembly of people in the Bible is the one that the apostle Peter used when he wrote to his believing Jewish kinsmen and said,
It is this ekklasia—this "assembly of the called-out ones" who have been redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ on the cross, and who believe and confess from the heart that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God"—that Jesus speaks of in this morning's verse. It is this "church" that the Son of God, before He went to the cross, promised to build. And He here promises that it is the one thing on this earth—the one institution found among men—that will never pass away!
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There are so many wonderful treasures in this very important verse about the "church" that it's hard to know where to begin. But let's first begin by looking at what Jesus affirms about . . .
1. ITS MODEL MEMBER.
Jesus had asked a question of the whole group of His disciples. He spoke in the plural; as if to say, "But who do you-all say that I am?" And it was one man—Peter—who stepped forward and gave the answer for the group; "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
From then on, Jesus speaks in the singular—to Peter directly. "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven." Peter is thus pointed out to us as the "representative testifier"—the "model confessor" of Jesus Christ. He was singled out in Jesus' attention for blessing, because it was he who uttered the apostolic testimony on behalf of the others. It was he who uttered the "blessed confession" that was given to them all by revelation of the heavenly Father concerning His Son.
And it was then that Jesus went on to say more. He says, "And I also say to you that you are Peter . . ." Jesus gave Simon the nickname Petros; that is, "the rock". It's not the first time that Jesus gave him this name. Very early in Jesus' earthly ministry, a disciple of John the Baptist named Andrew met Jesus, and then ran off to introduce his brother Simon to Him. And when Jesus met Simon, He looked at him and said, "You are Simon the son of Jonah. You shall be called Cephas (which is translated, A Stone)" (John 1:42).
Back then, Jesus said, "You shall be called Petros". But now, in our verse this morning, Jesus officially declares, "You are Petros". What made the difference? It was because Peter had just then, as it were, 'planted his flag' upon the blessed confession that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God". Peter, at the moment of his great confession, was officially declared to be what he himself would later say that others where who similarly confessed Jesus Christ:
This, then, makes Peter the "model member" of the church that Jesus promised to build. All that are a part of Jesus' church must come to Him in the same way, making the same confession of faith in Him from the heart—that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God".
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Before we leave these thoughts about Peter, I hope you'll permit me to I point out a couple of reasons why I'm grateful that Jesus chose to put the spotlight on him in this way.
The first reason is because Peter was fallible. I love the apostle Paul and admire him greatly. He was a brilliant theologian, and a powerfully courageous witness for Christ. But while I greatly admire Paul, I find that I identify with Peter. Peter was a very imperfect follower of Jesus; and so am I.
Just a few verses after the one we're looking at today, Peter dared to scold the Lord Jesus for talking about the cross; and Jesus had to sharply rebuke the evil one who was working through Peter; turning to Peter and saying, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are an offense to to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men" (v. 23). This same Peter would later boast that he would willingly lay down his own life before he would deny the Lord Jesus (Matthew 26:35); and who then, shortly thereafter, denied Jesus three times in a row (vv. 69-75). And even after Peter became a great leader in the church, the apostle Paul had to publicly withstand him to his face, because Peter was behaving in a way that denied the basic principle of God's gospel of grace to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:11-14ff).
Peter was a rock; but sometimes, he behaved like a very slippery rock! But it was upon him that Jesus chose to turn the spotlight; and to call him "the rock" in response to his confession of faith in Christ. How grateful we should be that God includes fallible people like Peter (and me; and you too) in His church of the redeemed!!
Another reason I'm grateful that Jesus points Peter out in this way is because of the hope that it can give every man or woman who is deeply searching and seeking for identity. How many lost and hurting people in this world cry out, "Who am I? What is my purpose? What is my place in this universe? Won't someone tell me who I am?" And here, no less than the Son of God tells poor, weak, fallible, often-confused Simon who he really is! You are who Jesus, the Son of God, says you are; and He told Simon, "You are 'the rock'." He was Peter the Rock from then on; and he still stands as Peter the Rock today.
If I may, let me draw a spiritual principle from this. You will never know who you truly are, until you first know who Jesus is. In your search for identity, quit looking inward! The answer isn't there! You can't give yourself identity; nor can you find your identity in yourself! Come to the One who made you for Himself! Come to the place where you can affirm—with Peter—that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God". Trust Him. Love Him. Grow to know Him. And then, you'll learn from Him who you truly are!
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So; Peter is held up to us as the church's "model member". Now, let's look at what Jesus says about . . .
2. ITS SURE FOUNDATION.
Jesus says, "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church . . ." As I suspect that some of you may know, we now encounter a pretty controversial question: "What is 'the rock' upon which Jesus promises to build His church?"
Traditionally in church history, there have been three different answers: (1) that it is Peter, (2) that it is Christ Himself, and (3) that it is the confession that Peter had just made. I hope you will permit me to explore those three options with you; because there aren't many things more important than the correct answer.
Let's consider the first—and perhaps the most controversial—of those options; that Peter himself is the rock on which the church is founded. This has been the official position of the Roman Catholic church; but it's not exclusive to them. Many Protestants have also argued that Peter is the foundation of the church. On the surface, it would seem to make sense; since Jesus just called Simon "the rock". But there are strong reasons for believing that Jesus did not mean that Peter was the foundation of the church.
First of all, if this was what Jesus meant, it seems that it would have been what He had said. He very easily could have said, “Upon you, Peter, I will build My church.” But why would have have spoken so ambiguously if Peter was what He meant? Second, the word that Jesus used to describe Peter is a different word than He used to describe the church's foundation. He called Peter by the word petros, which means “single rock”; but to describe the foundation of the church, He used the word petra; which means “shelf or ledge of rock”. A petros would simply be a small portion of a petra.2
Furthermore, Matthew's Gospel is the only one of the four that mentions Jesus' words about the foundation on which the church is built. It has always been recognized in the history of the church, and in the scholarship of the New Testament, that Mark's Gospel is the one that relates the gospel as Peter preached it. It would be very strange then, if Peter were meant as the foundation on which the church was built, that the Gospel of Mark doesn't even mention this important aspect of the message Peter preached. And it certainly doesn't make sense that our Lord would promise to build something so secure against the forces of darkness on any fallible member of fallen humanity. For these reasons, I suggest that Jesus did not mean to say that Peter was the “rock” on which the church was to be built.
But what about the second option—that Jesus Himself is the rock on which the church is to be built? This too would make a certain amount of sense, since Jesus Himself is often spoken of in the Bible under the figure of a “rock”. The Bible tells us that He is that spiritual “Rock” that followed the Jewish people in the days of Moses (1 Corinthians 10:4); and we're told that He is the “stone of stumbling and a rock of offense” that is described in the Old Testament Scriptures (Isaiah 8:14; 28:16; Jeremiah 6:21; Romans 9:32-33; 1 Peter 2:7-8). And of course, as Paul affirmed, “[N]o other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 3:3:11).
But once again, if Jesus had meant to say that He Himself was the foundation on which He would build His church, why didn't He simply say so? Why did He speak so ambiguously as to say “upon this rock”, when He meant Himself? Why did He not simply say, "Upon Myself—the Christ, the Son of the living God—I will build My church"? Why would He suddenly mean Himself, when He had just spoken such a strong blessing about the God-revealed confession of Peter?
For these reasons, it seems clear that “this rock” upon which Jesus promised to build His church is that very thing that He had just spoken about in the prior verse—that is, the blessed confession that Peter had just made. No other option makes as much sense; and it is the option that, in a sense, includes all other in itself. This “rock-solid” confession was made by Peter, "the rock": and it was made about the Person of Christ, who is the foundation that must be laid.
You might put it this way: Jesus is the real foundation of the church; but it is by this confession—modeled by Peter and the other apostles—that the real foundation is doctrinally apprehended and believed upon by God's people throughout the church age. Truly, on the basis of this confession, believers all around the world are members together of the household of God,
Anyone who is a part of Christ's church must also make that declaration that Peter made. How crucial it is, then, that we faithfully lift up this blessed confession to the world—and make sure we hold faithfully to it ourselves! It is that upon that foundation—and no other—that Jesus has promised to build His glorious church!
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And this leads us, next, to consider . . .
3. ITS MIGHTY BUILDER.
Jesus Christ has said that it was on this foundation—the confession that Peter made—that “I will build My church.” It is His church because He Himself builds it. And because the Son of God Himself personally builds it—and entrusts its construction to no one else—we can know for sure that it will endure forever!
One of the great mistakes we make as believers is to think that the building of the church on earth is ultimately up to us! It is not!! We may be be of use to Him in some way or other. But what the Scriptures tell us of the Church in its early days, in Acts 2:47, is still as true today as it ever was: “And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.”
Who else but He could do it? Who else is qualified to build that which will endure forever? And what's more, who better to look to for this glorious work than to Him who was able to say, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18)? Do you realize that Jesus Christ serves under His sovereign heavenly Father's authority in the task of building His church? And do you realize that it is the heavenly Father who causes “all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28)? Bishop J.C. Ryle once wrote;
Can there be any greater basis for confidence in the building of Christ's church on earth than the fact that He Himself—the almighty Son of God, upon whom is invested "all authority"—testifies, “I will build My church”?
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Now, this leads us to note, briefly, just two other things we find in this verse about the church that Jesus promises to build. We note . . .
4. ITS FEARSOME OPPOSITION.
Jesus promises to build His church; but He doesn't promise that His building program would be carried on without opposition. Jesus' words imply that the church that He promises to build will be under threat from “the gates of hades” or “hell”.
Stop and think about the purpose of “gates”. Simply put, gates are meant to do one of two things—either to keep something “out” that wants to get in; or to keep something “in” that wants to get out. And surely the forces of the evil one seeks to hinder the church in either of those two ways.
The enemy of humanity—the devil—seeks tirelessly to oppose the plan of God to redeem fallen people through the gospel. He seeks to prevent any of those who are separated from God, and who are helplessly in his clutches, from being delivered from the kingdom of darkness. If they become redeemed, they are destined to be his judges on the great Day of Judgment (see Romans 16:20). And so, as an offensive measure, the “gates of hades” would seek to seal its helpless victims inside, and prevent the gospel from ever setting any of its prisoners free.
And the enemy also seeks to prevent the message of the gospel from going forth into the realms of darkness, coming into the places in which it has taken occupation and held people as prisoners through the fear of death and the snares of sin, and taking "captivity captive" (see Ephesians 4:8). And so, as a defensive measure, the “gates of hades” would also seek to prevent the gospel from entering into its territory.
What's more, the "gates" of a city were often symbolic in the Scriptures for that place were the authority figures of a city met to decide important matters concerning what goes on in the city (see Proverbs 31:23). And so, it may even be that "the gates of hades" is meant to speak symbolically of the "principalities", "powers", rulers of the darkness of this age", and "spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places" against whom the Bible says we wrestle (Eph. 6:12).
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Jesus doesn't give us the impression that the building of His church will go on without this fierce opposition. There is a war going on in the heavenlies over the redemption of God's elect; and the eternal destinies of powerful spiritual beings is at stake. Jesus speaks to us realistically about the gates of hades. Examine the history of the church over the past twenty centuries; and you'll see how the gates of hades have often sought—through one means or another—to utterly destroy the church and hinder its life-giving message to fallen humanity.
But then, as you see what Jesus says about the church's fierce opposition, also notice what He says about . . .
5. ITS ULTIMATE SECURITY.
He affirms that He would build His church; and promises that "the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it." It would try to overcome the church. And when it serves the purpose of God to strengthen and build His precious redeemed people, the gates of Hades may even be allowed times in which it seems to be making progress against the church. But it will never ultimately prevail!
And if He promises that the greatest opposition the church could face—even the very gates of Hades itself—will not prevail against the church, then we can be sure that neither can any other opposition from this world. Jesus promises, "In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:33). The apostle Paul tasted of that opposition more than almost any human being that ever lived; and here's what he had to say about his confidence in the building of the church;
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So long as you and I do our part—and, like Peter did, personally and faithfully proclaim that crucial confession that Jesus is "the Christ, the Son of the living God"—we can be assured that we are a part of the one institution on the earth that will never perish or fade away. Jesus has promise that upon that "rock"—that blessed confession—He would build His church; and the gates of Hades itself will not prevail against it.
But only those who have their faith in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, can have that confidence. Is that "blessed confession" your own confession?
1These introductory thoughts are adapted from J.C. Ryle, Warnings to The Churches (London: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1967), p. 9.
2Also, the word petros—used to describe Simon, is a masculine noun; while the word petra—used to describe the foundation of the church, is in the feminine gender, suggesting something distinct to Peter, but to which Peter was certainly related.
3J.C. Ryle, Holiness (Welwyn, Hertfordshire: Evangelical Press, 1979), p. 214.
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