Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Christ and His Church - Matthew 16:18

"And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." (Matthew 16:18)

Last Sunday I had the opportunity to preach on Matthew 16:13-20, which teaches us about the creed of the church, Christ's promise regarding the church, and the keys of the kingdom. You can listen to the sermon here. I had eagerly looked forward to preaching on this text because it is an encouraging and doctrinally rich passage. It also happens that my namesake and name play an important a role in it. After Peter had confessed the true identity of Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God, Jesus turned to speak of Peter's identity as his apostle. "Peter" (in the Greek, Petros) is the word for "rock" (petra) but in the masculine gender. But does this mean Peter is the foundation of the church? And if so, in what way? What does Christ's promise mean for us today?

1. "You are Peter, and on this rock" 

Despite claims to the contrary, Jesus did not here establish the papacy. What is said about "this rock" does not refer only to Peter, nor does it refer to his successors. 

First, Peter spoke on behalf of all, as he often did (Matt. 15:15, Acts 2, 5:29). Jesus had asked, “Who do you (plural) say…” Jesus then treats Peter as the model apostle on the basis of his confession of faith. The rest of the apostles shared the same office with Peter. And elsewhere in Scripture it is always the apostles (not just Peter) who are the foundation of the church (Eph. 2:20, Rev. 21). 

Second, the apostles had a unique foundational office, distinct from all ministers who followed them. Ministers today are responsible to build well upon the apostolic foundation (1 Cor. 3:10-11). The apostles witnessed to the resurrection and proclaimed Christ’s teachings by the guidance of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:21-22, John 14:25-26). Their message was recorded for future generations in the New Testament. To be apostolic is to be faithful to the message of Jesus through his apostles as it is recorded in Scripture. The church is built upon the word of God and especially its teachings about Jesus, who is central to the whole Bible. As Paul says in Ephesians 2:20, the church is "built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone..." 

Jesus promised to build his church on Peter and the other apostles who like him confessed this faith. The apostles would teach the teachings of Jesus, and on these teachings the church would be built. An attribute of the true church is that it is apostolic, true to the teachings of the apostles recorded in Scripture. 

2. “I will build”

Jesus will build his church. He does not merely make it possible for the church to come into existence. He builds it. He makes its ordinances effective. He draws in the lost to salvation. He disciples and purifies his people. He uses instruments, but he is doing the work.

And Jesus will not fail to build it. It will be built. It will continue to grow. He will not let it fall apart.

So use his ordinances and participate in his church with confidence, knowing that he is at work among his people by his word and Spirit.

3. “My church”

The Greek word for church is ekklesia. Its basic meaning is "an assembly." As commonly noted, it is a compound word, from "called" and "from." Yet this idea of the "called out ones" is not primarily a doctrinal point about being called out of the world - it refers to those called out of their homes to the assembly. The word was used to refer to civil assemblies and political bodies (as in Acts 19:32, 39). And, importantly, it was used to refer to Old Testament Israel (the “congregation of Israel”), both as the whole people and its representative assemblies. 

And not only does Jesus refer to a church, but to "my church." Jesus is the head of the church. Its common identity is found in him. This church includes OT Israel, for its common identity was in the promise of Christ made to Abraham, but Jesus came to renew and restructure his church for the new covenant age. Our source of unity must be in Jesus Christ, and through him, in the Father and the Spirit, not in any side issue or cultural fad or demographic.

Christ has one church. Though we unite in local churches, yet his church is one. Whether considered as the elect, or as his church visible in time, it is one church, his church. The visible church consists of all who confess Christ and their children. This is why we seek to be involved in the regional, national, and international church, working together for Christian education, missions, and relief, and holding councils for coordination, controversies, and appeals.

4. “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it”

There are two Greek words commonly translated "hell." In this passage, the word is hades (the place of the dead, the state of death) not gehenna (the place of final judgment). The "gates" refer to the power of hades, whether you think of the gates of a city as its center of political power in the ancient world, or imagine it as the mouth of death which swallows everyone and lets no one come back (the dominion of death, Rom. 6:9). The power of death and destruction is proverbially strong. 

In other words, hostile powers of death and destruction shall not overpower the church of Christ. Do you see these forces which seek to tear the church apart? Temptation, scandal, hypocrisy, heresies, divisions, strife, apostasy, lukewarmness, compromise, hostility, ridicule, persecution, and slander. The fallen world, the evil one, and our indwelling sin wage war against Christ's church, seeking its destruction. But the church shall not crumble. It shall stand. It shall continue to proclaim the faith once delivered to the saints unto the end of the age. 

Jesus triumphed over the gates of hades when he rose from the dead. As Scripture says, his soul was not abandoned to hades, and death lost its dominion over him on the third day (Acts 2:27-32, Rom. 6:9). He burst through the gates of death and triumphed over the grave. 

And so his church, risen with him, is free of the dominion of sin, death, and the evil one. There will be conflict, but these forces will not prevail against it. They will not overpower it, because Jesus is building it and he is more powerful than death itself. He has overcome the world and the evil one.

In fact, he sends his disciples to go on the offensive, to go to all the nations and make them his disciples, delivering people from the dominion of sin and death. We are storming the gates of hell to set its captives free.

Therefore, do not despair when you behold the forces of destruction. But boldly advance into the fray, and do not despair. Our King fight for us and makes his ordinances powerful to overcome all odds. The church shall triumph over these forces, as it has in ages past, all to the glory of Christ our king. 

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