Christ Is Building His Church
"…Upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Christ in Matt. 16:18).
There are two ways of looking at missions today. There is the human side, and we are generally well acquainted with that side. We have heard about the need for missionaries, the difficulties of communicating the Gospel in another culture, the problem of closed doors, etc. That is the human side of church planting. But there is another side – the divine side, and in Matthew 16:18 the Lord Jesus Christ made a prediction about the building of His Church.
It is important that we keep this aspect of the missionary task before us. Indeed, we should think about it often. If we look only at the human side – the difficulties of it, the so-called closed doors, the millions who are still unreached for Christ – we may give way to pessimism and conclude that whatever God wants done, just can’t be done. If from time to time we will deliberately look away from the human side, we will be encouraged and fortified to carry on with the commission given to us.
We should remember as well that the divine side is not in conflict with the human side. The Acts of the Apostles is a clear illustration of the two aspects, the divine and the human, working together in harmony. In the early Church the risen Lord and His appointed apostles worked as head and body to carry out the Great Commission given to the Church. Charles H. Spurgeon was once asked to reconcile divine sovereignty and human responsibility, and the London preacher replied, "I don’t need to, for they have not fallen out."
That must be our attitude as we consider the two sides of the missionary work of the Church. Christ’s words in Matthew 16:18 will help us greatly in our attempt to understand missions from the divine side. Christ spoke of a builder, a building, and a battle. We need to keep each in perspective and in proportion if we want to see missions, as it were, through Christ’s eyes.
"I will build My Church." To most of us this passage is so familiar that the immediate impression that must have been made on the minds of the disciples as they listened to Jesus is by and large lost. We read the passage or hear it read, and we nod in agreement, having solved for ourselves the mysteries of Jesus’ teachings. We do well, then, to approach the passage as it were for the first time. And when we do that, three basic matters concerning the Builder press upon us for clarification.
The Builder’s Identity
First of all, we inquire concerning the Builder’s identity. Who is He that announces, "I will build My Church"? Obviously Jesus thought this to be a question of fundamental importance because, as recorded in this same passage, He raised the issue Himself. Here is Matthew’s account:
"When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, whom do men say that I, the Son of man, am? And they said, Some say that Thou art John the Baptist: some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. He saith unto them, But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:13-16).
Notice that the discussion concerning Jesus’ identity begins generally and ends personally: "Whom do men say…. Whom say ye that I am?" "Men…you." Jesus is never content to get the popular, prevailing opinion of others! He wants a personalized, individual response to the question. The fact of the matter is there is really no more important question in the universe than this: Who is Jesus? Who is the One who boldly announces, "I will build My Church?"
Have you settled this matter in your mind? Have you answered Jesus? Have you spoken from the inmost depths of your heart and said, as Peter divinely enlightened said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God"?
Think of it. Jesus of Nazareth, a small town of no great importance in the ancient world, the One who was considered as the carpenter’s son, announces, "I will build My Church." Unless He really is the Son of God, what He claims here is nonsense, the wild imaginations of a religious fanatic. But once admit that He is the promised Messiah, the Son of the Living God, then what He says here is perfectly intelligible and harmonious, coherent and convincing.
The Builder’s Authority
The second issue that is raised by the prediction, "I will build My Church," is the Builder’s authority. Actually Jesus makes twin pronouncements in this passage: "I will build…I will give…the keys of heaven." Both activities involve great authority. In both cases, we believe, Jesus was looking forward into the future to the period after His death and resurrection. Was it not after His resurrection that He announced to His disciples, "All authority has been given unto Me"? (Matt. 28:18). Involved in that authority was the authority to build His Church and to equip the apostles with the keys of heaven.
Are you ever tempted to think, "Will Jesus ever get the job done? Does He have the authority necessary?" If so, then grasp what He is saying here – the future is not in doubt for one moment.
The Builder’s Prophecy
The third matter raised by a discussion of Jesus’ remarkable words, "I will build My Church," is the fact of the prophecy of the Builder. Place yourself for a moment in the situation of the disciples as they were listening to Jesus. First from Jesus’ lips comes a prophecy concerning His Church: "I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Hearing that positive declaration, the disciples would have imagined themselves unbeatable. But wait. We read in Matthew 16:21: "From that time forth began Jesus to show unto His disciples, how that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised again the third day." This is a prophecy concerning His Cross.
Can you appreciate how the disciples must have been confused? One moment Jesus is predicting the construction of His Church; the next, the certainty of His Cross. One moment He is describing the building of His Church; the next, His death on the Cross. One moment He speaks of victory and triumph; the next, of death and tragedy.
Now it has been given to us to understand the sequence and the significance of Jesus’ prophecy. We know that the Cross came first, and then the Church. But how difficult for the disciples with their stress on the reign of the Messiah to accept what He is saying here to them.
In considering the Builder, then, we must grasp that He is the Messiah, the Son of God; that to Him has been given the authority to build His Church; and that even as He went to the Cross, He was strengthened by the vision of the Church coming into existence as a result of His death. Carpenter’s son, as many thought He was, He had a much bigger building program committed to Him than any earthly building contractor.
Having identified the Builder, we must now look at the building concerning which He speaks: "I will build My Church." First, what or who is the foundation of this building? Here are Christ’s words to Peter: "Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church" (v. 18). To what or to whom does Christ refer when He affirms: "Upon this rock I will build My Church"?
There is a simple principle of Bible interpretation that will help us here. In studying a difficult passage of Scripture we must allow Scripture to interpret Scripture. That simply means we must let another passage that clearly identifies the foundation to be regulative in the interpretation of Matthew 16:18.
Here, then, is 1 Corinthians 3:9-11: "Ye are God’s building. According to the grace of God which is given unto me, as a wise masterbuilder, I have laid the foundation, and another buildeth thereon. But let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon. For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ."
In these words Paul clearly establishes the fact that the Foundation of the Church is Jesus Christ. Whatever interpretation we give to Jesus’ words in Matthew 16:18, we cannot make Peter to be the foundation of the Church. Even Peter himself recognized Jesus as the Foundation (see 1 Peter 2:4-7).
What Jesus said to His disciples, therefore, appears to be this: "I am going to build My Church, and I am going to build it on Myself, the Son of the living God, as the only Foundation."
But what, then, about the fabric of the building? "I will build My Church" – yes, but with what? What are the materials that go into this building? The Apostle Peter, to whom Christ’s words were initially given, answers that question for us. Writing to Christians Peter states: "Ye also, as lively [living] stones, are built up a spiritual house" (1 Pet. 2:5). Jesus is building His Church in this world, and He is using people as living stones to construct His temple. From all over the world building blocks are being fitted into that holy place. He is not using angels as the raw materials for His Church. He has chosen to use men and women as "living stones."
Out from this discussion comes a very important principle. The New Testament never refers to a building when it speaks of the Church. The reference is always to people. Jesus was not predicting the building of a stone structure when He announced, "I will build My Church." He had in mind a group of people, redeemed by His Blood and indwelt by His Spirit.
In His announcement to Peter Jesus said, "Upon this rock I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Implicit in Christ’s words is the prediction of a battle between Christ and His Church and "the gates of hell." To what exactly does this phrase, "the gates of hell" refer?
When we read the Bible, we must always keep in mind the fact that it was not written in the twentieth century nor in our culture. In an ancient city or town one of the most important places was the gate or gates. The gates of a city represented two things: defense and decision.
Take the aspect of defense. In Isaiah 45:2 God says to Cyrus: "I will break in pieces the gates of brass, and cut in sunder the bars of iron." That means, of course, that He would enable Cyrus, the Medo-Persian ruler, to penetrate the defenses of the city of Babylon. With God as his ally Cyrus would break down the gates of the city.
But in Bible days, "gates" also stood for decision. It was in the large open area near the gates of the city that the officials of a city would meet for discussion, deliberation, and decision. In the description of the virtuous woman of Proverbs 31 we read this: "Her husband is known in the gates, when he sitteth among the elders of the land" (v. 23). Doing what? Surely the answer is – conducting the business of the land, making decisions that will determine the future of the city and country.
What, then, is meant by the phrase, "the gates of hell"? Hell is Hades in the Greek. Was Jesus looking ahead to the ultimate deliverance of the Church? Was He assuring His people that they will rise again in triumph at the Resurrection? The gates of hell will not be able to triumph over the Church in the sense of being able to prevent the resurrection of all those in Christ Jesus.
Or was Jesus using the phrase, "the gates of hell," in a figurative way? Here is how Dr. Douglas Bannerman explains it: "The powerful and impressive figure of ‘the gates of hell’ would naturally suggest the idea of mighty forces coming from the realm of the unseen, the kingdom of death and the world of spirits, marshaled by deliberate counsels such as were held in the gates of Eastern cities."
Interpreted in this way, the phrase suggests that Jesus saw wave after wave of satanic opposition being launched against His Church, but His constant promise is: "I will build My Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" – that is, shall not vanquish it or overcome it. Let Satan plan as he will, he and his cohorts will never be able to wipe out Christ’s Church.
When we think of Christ’s great prophecy and ask the question, "Has it been fulfilled?" the answer is an emphatic yes! Look around the world and see the Church of Christ established and growing in nearly every country of the globe. Remember that Satan had done his best to wipe out that Church, both from within and from without, but praise God, the gates of hell have not prevailed against the Church of the living Lord and coming King. Go forward with that assurance gripping your heart.
Used by permission of the author. Dr. Rendall is a professor with Olford Ministries International.