“I Will Build My Church”
This Sunday, we begin the third and final section in our series on the church. I want to begin by letting you know that we are making a change to the specific material we’ll be working through in this last leg of the series. And to explain that change, I want to remind you of the initial introduction I gave to this series last September. I had said that this series is really an extension of the “You Are Here” series that we did the year before. In that series we traced out how the Bible is one story, Jesus Christ is the main character, and you and I are a part of that story today.
But what we missed in that series was an extended reflection on the church. When we talked about our place in the story, we talked about things that largely spoke about our individual lives. Which wasn’t wrong, but it was lop-sided. We didn’t focus enough on the part we play together in the biggest story ever told. And so, to round out that picture, we needed this look at the church.
And that was one of the reasons for studying these three letters called the Pastoral Epistles. Written by the Apostle Paul to two young pastors, these letters tell us a lot about the church, especially how it is supposed to operate and be structured in terms of leadership.
But these three books don’t cover everything. They don’t tell us everything we need to know about the church.
And so for the past few months I’ve been chewing on the fact that if we’re really going to round out this series and get as good of a look at the church as we can, we’re probably going to have to look beyond just these three letters.
And this is especially true when we consider 2 Timothy, which we were going to move on to next. 2 Timothy is a beautiful and a precious book and I can’t wait to preach on it. But if you read it carefully, you’ll notice that it’s not necessarily a book about the church, per se. It relates to the church, but the book is really about Timothy and pastoral faithfulness.
Again, that’s not saying it’s not important for us. It is an extremely important book. But I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not necessarily the best place for us to end this series, if we really want this series to give us as full-orbed of a picture of the church as possible. And I talked to the board about this, and they agreed.
And so between now and the end of June, we are going to look at a few other places in the New Testament. We’ll spend four weeks in the gospel of Matthew, as well as some time in Acts and Romans 1 Corinthians and Ephesians and Philippians, considering passages which will hopefully enrich and deepen our understanding of the church.
In these weeks we want to ask and answer questions like,
- What is the church? How should we understand what the church is?
- What is a church, as in, a local church, and how does a local church relate to the universal church?
- What is a church supposed to do?
- What is baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and how do they relate to our life together as a church?
- How do we make sense of church discipline?
- What should it look like to live life together, and how can we work together for unity?
Those are the kinds of places we’re going go in these final ten weeks of this series. I want to warn you that even in these weeks, we’re not going to say everything that can be said. But we are going to fill in some blanks and cover some important ground and, Lord willing, come away with a deep and rich appreciation for the church and our privilege to be a part of it.
Challenging Our Assumptions
One of the reasons I feel the need to cover this material and ask some basic questions, like “what is a church?”, is that most of us are very familiar with churches. Even if you didn’t grow up going to church, you probably grew up in a town that had churches, and had an idea of what they were and what they did.
And that means that, from a very young age, many of us were building assumptions about the church, and what the church is, and what the church is supposed to do, based on what we saw and heard and experienced around us.
Now that can be a good thing, if the churches that influenced us were going a good job. But familiarity has its own dangers. Don’t ask a fish what water is, right? The more we get used to something, the harder it can be to really see it for what it is.
Added to this is my concern that here in North America, our understanding of the church is often far more influenced by our culture than we would care to admit. Think about it: when we see a video of a church service in another part of the world, it seems strange to us. It’s different from what we do. And we assume that what we do is normal.
But if you took a video of our church service and played it for those people, they’d think we’re strange. Like it or not, our church is shaped by our culture. And while some of that is just normal, it can also be really dangerous.
And so these are two ways of exposing why, in these last weeks of this series, we want to make sure that we take a close look at Scripture at the basics of the church, and let God’s word shape our thinking on what the church is.
And there’s no better place to begin than going to the first place that the word “church” is ever used in the New Testament, which is our passage today in Matthew 16.
Introducing the Messiah
Matthew 16 comes right around the half-way point in Matthew’s gospel, and it’s a part of a section that forms a major turning point in the book.
Up until this point we’ve seen Jesus preach and teach and perform miracles and experience growing conflict with the religious leaders. But here in chapter 16 He finally takes His disciples away from the spotlight of ministry, 25 miles north of Galilee into the Gentile region of Caesarea Phillipi, and He finally asks them The Question. The question that was burning on many people’s minds, and the question that would have been burning in your heart if you had been reading this book for the first time. “Who is this person? Who is he? And what is his plan? What is he doing?”
And so in our passage today, Jesus reveals His identity and introduces the church. And in the rest of the chapter He goes on to tell his disciples, for the very first time, that He is going to Jerusalem to be killed and raised again. And He tells them that if they want to come after Him, they’ll need to pick up their crosses and follow.
So today’s passage is not just a random story. This is a key text that comes at a major turning point in Matthew’s gospel. And so let’s see what it says. “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets’” (Matthew 16:13–14).
This passage suggests us that the identity of Jesus was a hot topic. People were trying to figure out who He was, and many hypotheses had been put forward. People knew that Jesus was important, but they all seemed to assume that He was just someone returned from history, someone preparing the way for the real Messiah.
But in verse 15, Jesus asks the key question: “But who do you say that I am?”
It’s important to note that this is a plural “you.” He is asking this group of disciples, in contrast to the opinions of the crowds, what they think. And so in verse 16, when Simon Peter speaks up, this is probably not just his own personal opinion. He’s acting as a spokesman for the band of disciples.
And what does he say? “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16).
Now we need to pause here and try to soak in the meaning of these words, because what Peter says here about Jesus has major connections to what Jesus is about to say next about the church.
Here’s the big picture of what I want us to see here: that these words that Peter speaks about Christ are not just a religious confession. The word “Christ” is not just or even mainly a religious title. The title “Son of God” is not just a religious title.
That is how those words are often understood here in North America. If someone says, “I believe Jesus is the Christ,” we take that to be a religious statement. It means they are a Christian; they have accepted Jesus as their personal saviour, they believe certain things, and they will embrace certain religious practices.
But that is not how these words would have sounded in the first century. In the first century, these were fighting words. These were words dripping with political and end-times meaning.
God’s Anointed King
Let’s consider the word “Christ.” This comes from the Hebrew word for Messiah, and means “Anointed One.” In Israel, prophets, priests and kings were anointed. But this word “Anointed One” was particularly associated with that last one—the office of king. “The Lord’s Anointed” is a phrase used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures to speak about the king.
And this wasn’t a metaphorical king, like “Jesus is the king of my heart.” It meant a king. A real king. A real king with a real kingdom who really ruled and reigned over a real people. And so this word is important because it connects us up to a big theme in the gospel of Matthew, which is the kingdom of God or the Kingdom of Heaven.
When Jesus began His ministry, we read in Matthew 4:17 that “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.’” That’s also what He taught His disciples to proclaim as they went out (Matthew 10:7). Jesus taught about the kingdom in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3, 6:10, 33, etc.) and explained its nature in the Parables (Matthew 13:24, 31, 33, 44, 45, 47). Jesus told his opponents that the “Kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matthew 12:28).
And as Jesus’ followers heard about His kingdom, they wouldn’t have thought this was just a nice word-picture. The Kingdom of God was a real kingdom, a real political entity. And now Peter says, “You are the King.” You are God’s anointed king.
There are also major political implications to the phrase “Son of the Living God” in verse 16. This phrase is just loaded with theological meaning. On the one hand it refers to the fact that Jesus is God the Son. He is the divine Son of God, and this is a truth Matthew draws our attention to repeatedly (Matthew 11:25-27, 17:5, etc.).
But there’s another layer of meaning to this title “Son of God,” which comes from the covenant God made with David, when God promised David an offspring who would rule forever, and said, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son” (2 Samuel 7:14).
In the ancient world, there was this understanding that the king was a son of their local god, and that this is what gave him the right to rule the little patch of territory that belonged to that god. But Yahweh is God over the whole world. So if David’s son was going to be taken by Yahweh to be His son, that meant that David’s offspring was going to be king of the world.
And so this title “Son of the living God,” while speaking to Jesus’ divinity, also speaks again to His office as king and ruler of the world. And again, these were not metaphors or symbols. Peter is confessing that Jesus is God’s anointed king, and therefore He—not Herod, not Caesar—should be wearing the crown and ruling.
The Return of the King
So Peter’s confession was dripping with political implications. It’s also full of end-times implications, like I mentioned a few moments ago. God has given His people many prophecies about His anointed king, the Christ, the Son of David, coming to reign, and these prophecies were connected with the total transformation of history and creation. This Age of human history would come to a close. The Age to Come would begin, the age of eternal life, with the Christ ruling over the Kingdom of God forever.
And so when Peter confesses that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God, that’s what’s going on in the minds of the disciples. They were in the end times. The whole order of things was going to be overturned. And that’s what “following Jesus” meant to them at this point. They were following God’s forever king and were first in line to get access to God’s forever kingdom.
And here’s the thing. They were right. All of their expectations about Jesus marching into Jerusalem and defeat His enemies and rule on David’ throne over a New Creation were 100% accurate. He is going to do that. They were simply mistaken on the timing. They didn’t understand that there was going to be this season, which Jesus described in the parables, where the kingdom of God was going to be at work here on earth at the same time as the kingdoms of men. They didn’t understand that there was going to be this season where God invites people into His kingdom one by one as they confess their sins and bow their knees to King Jesus.
And so they were not prepared for the huge and heartbreaking news that Jesus was about to give to them, that when He got to Jerusalem, instead of being crowned as King upon David’s throne, He’s going to be crucified as a criminal upon a Roman cross. They didn’t understand that their sin needed to be paid for by a full and final sacrifice. There was a lot they still didn’t get.
But here, in verse 16, Peter’s confession was spot-on. All of it’s political and end-times meaning was spot-on. And we know this because Jesus doesn’t answer, “No, no, Peter, you’re taking this too far. I’ve only come to be your personal Lord and Saviour. I just want to be king of your heart, not of the world.”
That’s not what He says. Instead, “Jesus answered him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven’” (Matthew 16:17). There’s so much in there I’d love to unpack, but please notice that Jesus affirms Peter’s confession and says that God Himself has revealed this to him.
And then comes verse 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).
This verse has all the markings of a formal pronouncement, built on the words that have just been spoken. “And I, as the Messiah, the Lord’s anointed King, say to you, the man who has just made this confession about me…”
“You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church.” This morning, we don’t have time to go into all of the nuance of this verse. There is a famous play on words here in the original language—“Peter” being the word πετρος (petros), “rock” being the word πετρα (petra). Jesus is saying that Peter, as the man who just made this confession about Jesus, will be a key foundation stone in the building of the church.
That’s something we see acted out in the book of Acts. Peter, on the day of Pentecost, preaches a sermon that powerfully unpacks and expands on this confession he made here about Jesus as the Christ. And 3,000 people are added to the church. And Peter’s role as a key leader in the church continues for some time after that.
But for our purposes this morning we want to zero in on this word “church.” And we can’t forget the context. Up until this point in Matthew it’s been all kingdom, kingdom, kingdom. Peter has just made this very political confession about Jesus. And Jesus says that upon this man who just made this confession, he will build his… church.
If we misunderstand the meaning of the word “church,” then this word just sounds like it comes totally out of the blue. It sounds like Jesus is totally changing the subject. And that has caused some critical scholars to say that this verse can’t be authentic. It must have been added in later. Because it makes no sense that, in this context of king and kingdom, Jesus would drop in such an obviously religious word like “church.”
But that is a huge mistake. Because, to Jesus’ first hearers, this word for “church” would not have been a directly religious word. They didn’t associate it with stained-glass windows and pulpits and pews and hymnbooks.
The word translated “church” is the Greek word εκκλησια (ekklēsia). It’s where we get words like “ecclesiastical” or “ecclesiology” from. And while there is a long tradition of translating the word as “church,” the word basically means “assembly.” That’s the basic meaning of the word and that’s how it was used in the ancient world.
The ancient Greeks used this work εκκλησια (ekklēsia) to describe the citizens of the city assembling together to make decisions and exercise their civic duties. There’s a connection there to Acts 19 when the city of Ephesus gathered together in protest of Paul. “Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together” (Acts 19:32).
And then the town clerk quiets them down and says to them, “But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly” (Acts 19:39). And then, “when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly” (Acts 19:41).
That word for “assembly” in all three cases the word εκκλησια (ekklēsia). The same word that’s translated “church” most other places in the New Testament. And it shows the political background for this word, long before it was ever used in the Bible.
But then the word was used in the Bible. εκκλησια (ekklēsia) is used in the Greek Old Testament over 100 times. And that’s a big surprise to people who assume that “church” is a New Testament word. It’s not. It was a very familiar word to 1st century Jews.
And the word basically means an assembly. In the book of Deuteronomy, the phrase “day of the assembly” is used to describe when Israel gathered together at the foot of Mount Sinai to enter into covenant with the Lord (Deuteronomy 9:10, 10:4, 18:16). And the gathered people of Israel are referred to as the “Assembly of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 23:1-8, Deuteronomy 31:30, 1 Chronicles 6:3).
So in that sense, the word did take on religious meaning. It came to refer to the people of God, members of His covenant community, who had assembled in response to Him.
But we should remember that, to Jesus’ listeners, there was not a sharp divide between “religious” and “political” like there is for us today. The people who assembled before Sinai were told that they would be a “kingdom of priests and a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6). And in all of the following years, it was the citizens of the kingdom who gathered together into an assembly before the Lord.
And so when Jesus says that He will build his εκκλησια (ekklēsia), that is what He is describing. As God’s anointed king, He is going to build His assembly of kingdom citizens. Just like the Old-Covenant citizens of Israel would assemble together, so the New-Covenant citizens of the kingdom of God would assemble together. And Jesus is going to build this assembly.
Author Jonathan Leeman has recently written a very helpful book about the nature of the church called “One Assembly.” In that book, he reflects on these kingdom dimensions of the word “church” and says that as Jesus used this word, he was “reconstituting…God’s kingdom through outposts of that heavenly kingdom on earth… No, Jesus did not intend his disciples to take over a geographic plot of land by sword. But nor did he intend for them to be a ‘religion’ merely characterized by certain beliefs. Rather, he wanted to constitute them as a kingdom—a political reality. And so he chose a political word that necessarily came with spatial meaning: ekklēsia. His disciples would submit to him, and they would submit to him together. Visibly. In a place. As a testimony to his rule. As if they were a landed kingdom like any other kingdom.”1Leeman, Jonathan. One Assembly (9Marks) (Kindle Locations 778-784). Crossway. Kindle Edition.
And then he goes on to say, “The church is an authoritative body, like an embassy. The very word ekklēsia or ‘church’ vibrates and glows with both kingdom and spatial significance. It is a political or authority-structured thing. And just as the idea of a kingdom typically invokes thoughts of a land or a place, so Jesus chooses a word for the people of this kingdom that necessarily invokes the idea of place—an assembly.” 2Leeman, 798-801.
Now there’s a lot there to unpack. And in the weeks ahead we’re going to get to unpack much of what this passage has to say for our life together as a church. But I hope this morning you’ve glimpsed just a little bit. I hope you’ve glimpsed that what Jesus means when He says “church” is very different from what most people in North America mean when they say church.
Jesus is not just a religious figure who imparts religious teachings and whose followers happen to get together once a week in nice buildings to have religious experiences. This passage is telling us that Jesus is a king, more real of a king than any authority we see on earth today. And the day is coming when we will see Him reigning on earth with all of its citizens doing what He commands.
But he is not waiting until that day to gather the people of that kingdom. He’s already started. His kingdom is already coming as men and women bow their knees to Him as Lord and receive His salvation and submit their lives to Him and begin to live under His sovereign reign, here and now. And those people gather together into churches, ἐκκλησίας (ekklēsias), which are outposts and embassies of that great and final kingdom.
If you’ve ever walked into an foreign embassy, as you cross the threshold into that building, it’s like you’ve walked into another other country. And that’s what the church is like. Not our building, as we gather, we are an embassy, an outpost, of the kingdom of Jesus.
And Jesus is a real king, and His kingdom is a real kingdom. How many Christians died in those early centuries ahead because they obeyed Jesus first, and Caesar second?
So again, in the coming weeks we’re going to explore some of what this practically means for us, and what it looks like for us as a church to live together in this way. Next week we’re going to pick up on verse 19 and then jump into Matthew 18 as we talk about these “keys of the kingdom” and what that means for you and I.
The Church Unstoppable
But for today we are going to end our reflection here with the rest of verse 18. “I will build my church,” Jesus said, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Many people hear these words and incorrectly assume that “Hell” is Satan’s abode, and imagine that Jesus is here describing the church going off like an army to storm Satan’s castle. And that’s not the idea at all. The word here for “hell” comes from the word “Hades,” and scholars agree that this is referring to the place of the dead. The phrase “the gates of hell” or “the gates of Hades” refers to the fact that death is irreversible. The dead don’t come back.
But Jesus did come back. That’s what He’s pointing to. He is going to build his church, and death itself won’t stop Him from doing that. Like Samson, Jesus was going to rip the gates of death off of their hinges and prove that they had no power over him.
And hasn’t Jesus shown again and again throughout history that death has no power over His church? How many dictators and tyrants have tried to kill the church by killing its people? And yet, how many times have we experienced the truth that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church? That the more you try to kill the church, the more it grows.
And don’t we need to remember that today? I’ve said in this message that the word “church” basically means “assembly.” We are an outpost of the heavenly assembly, and yet what does that mean when we can’t assemble here on earth? With restrictions looking like they are going to go on for a time, what does that mean for us?
Have you had any fear for the future of the church in this time? Or maybe you remember, before COVID-19, the threat of the conversion therapy bans and concern for what that means for us as a church.
Let the words of the resurrected Christ this morning encourage you. The church of Jesus Christ is not just a one religious organization among many. We are the assembly of the kingdom, an embassy of the reign of Jesus. He has promised to build his church and no power can stop him.
Remember Ephesians 1 which speaks about Jesus being raised from the dead and seated “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Ephesians 1:21), and then telling us that God “gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23)?
There may be uncertainty in this time about what it looks like for us to be the church, but there is no uncertainty about the future of the church. Individual churches may rise and fall, but the church itself cannot and never will.
And so this morning I encourage you to be encouraged. If you have been saved by Jesus Christ, be amazed at the privilege you have to be a part of His kingdom assembly, his church. It is no small thing.
And in this time when we can’t gather all together, let’s double down on our commitment to care for one another as best as we can. Because of technology, we’re able to “stir up one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24) even when we’re apart.
I think we are doing that well, but it’s going to be more and more important to keep this up the longer we’re apart.
Let’s be encouraged. But let’s also pray. As a church is is in our very DNA to gather together. Assemblies assemble. What we’re doing right now is better than nothing, but it’s far from the real thing. This might be more comfortable than what we usually do, but it’s not what we were made for. It’s not the best.
So let’s beseech God in His mercy to hasten the day we can assemble again. It will come; this is not going to last forever. Let’s pray for patience as we wait, and let’s ask Him to keep us strong and active in the meantime.