The Church Revisited

Matthew 16:16 - Simon Peter answered, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."

Matthew 16:18 - Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

In response to Peter's great confession of faith the Lord Jesus gave a wonderful doctrinal statement about the Church: "Upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it." Has so much truth ever been spoken in so few words? However, perhaps because this statement is so concise, considerable misunderstanding--and even serious controversy--has arisen over the years regarding the doctrine contained in these words of our Lord Jesus. There is misunderstanding about the definition of the Church. There is misunderstanding about the foundation of the Church. And there is misunderstanding about the mission of the Church. Although you may be one of many growing Christians who have already firmed up your understanding of these areas of doctrine, read on--it never hurts to "revisit" Church doctrine!

It's Alive!

The misunderstanding about the definition of the Church occurs when the concepts of "organism" and "organization" are blurred. Composed of all true believers in the Lord Jesus Christ, the Church is a living, breathing, growing organism--not a static organization, hobbled by iron-clad traditions! When the Lord Jesus said that He would build His Church, He wasn't revealing a blueprint for building a rigidly structured ecclesiastical organization with multi-tiered levels of power and authority! No way! Jesus had real people in mind! His Church is described as His Body and His Bride! Our Lord was looking forward to a living, growing, vibrant relationship with His redeemed people--a restoration of the loving fellowship between God and the people He had created in His own image.

Although there must be a structure of authority and spiritual leadership within each individual local church, the New Testament does not describe the universal Church as a hierarchical, structured organization. The Church universal, as the living, growing, active Body of Christ, is compared to the human body in many places in Scripture. (Read 1 Corinthians 12 and Ephesians 4.) The healthy human body is a living, growing, active organism, with myriad complex characteristics and functions. Each part of the human body has its part to play. There is no "hierarchy" in the body's parts. Ultimately, the "head" (brain) "calls all the shots" for the proper functioning of the body.

In the same way, the universal Church is a living, growing, active organism, with many different "parts," and Christ is the "Head" (Ephesians 4:15-16). Every local church is unique, with its own characteristics and mission. As important "Body parts," each individual believer and each local church should receive direction from, and should answer directly to, Christ, the Head of the Body. An individual Christian can best practice this truth of the unity of the Body of Christ by first being non-sectarian, and second, by being actively involved in a Christ-honoring, Bible-teaching local church that takes its direction straight from the Head of the Body.

On Solid Rock!

The second widely-misunderstood doctrine of the Church, as described by our Lord in Matthew 16, is the foundation of the Church. When the Lord Jesus said "upon this rock I will build my church," He was not indicating that Peter would be the foundation of the Church. He was referring to Himself as the solid Rock and the rock-solid truth that Peter had just stated about Jesus as the Messiah: "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." Jesus was not just the son of David. He was indeed the Christ, the Son of the living God--and upon Him alone, based upon this great foundational truth, the Church would be built.

It's true that the name, Peter ("petros"), means a stone or a small boulder. Jesus used this name as a "stepping-stone" to unfold the great truth of the foundation of the Church. It's also true that Peter and the rest of the apostles are described as foundational stones or boulders in Ephesians 2:19-22, which illustrates the Church as a growing building. And it's true that Peter was given the keys to open the doors of the kingdom at Pentecost (Acts 2), and to "open the doors of the Church" to the Gentiles at the house of Cornelius (Acts 10). And it's true that in Matthew 18:18 and John 20:23, Peter and the rest of the apostles were given the power to bind and loose the disciplinary retention and forgiveness of sins (a power which has nothing to do with salvation, and is still granted to church leaders today). So there is no doubt that Peter had a significant role to play in the early Church.

However, the Lord Jesus never declared Peter to be the massive rock foundation on which the Church was to be built! In Matthew 16:18 the Lord used two different forms of a Greek word: "You are Peter ("petros," a stone or small rock), and upon this rock ("petra," a massive rock) I will build my Church...." Look at how the word "petra" is used in the parable of the wise builder in Matthew 7:24-25. "Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon a rock [petra]. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall because it had its foundation on the rock [petra]." The rock foundation in that parable was obviously not just a "petros," or small boulder! And 1 Corinthians 3:11 clearly states that "no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ."

Other New Testament references teach in no uncertain terms that neither Peter, nor any "successor" of Peter, was ever to be considered - in any way - the head of the church!

Ephesians 1:22 states that "God placed all things under [Christ's] feet and appointed Him to be head over everything for the church, which is His body."

Ephesians 5:23 reiterates that "Christ is the head of the church, His body, of which He is the Savior." Primacy and supremacy clearly belong to Christ alone!

"He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by Him all things were created...all things were created by Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together. And He is the Head of the body, the church; He is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything He might have the supremacy" (Colossians 1:15-18).

Peter never considered himself to be the foundation of the Church. In fact, in 1 Peter 2:4-6 he described every Christian as one of the many"living stones" making up the building of the Church with Christ as the corner stone of the foundation. And Peter never considered himself to be the head of the church, but only a "fellow-elder," one of many elders (1 Peter 5:1).

When did the Church begin? The foundation for the Church was laid with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the building began with the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2). Since the Lord Jesus said, "I will build My Church" (future tense), it stands to reason that the Church had not yet begun when He made the statement in Matthew 16. Since the Church is described as "the temple of the Holy Spirit" (1 Corinthians 3:16), it follows that the Church did not begin until the Holy Spirit descended on the believers at Pentecost. Although the Spirit was certainly present and working in the lives of Old Testament believers, He did not indwell them in the same way as He today indwells the body of Christ on earth.

Mission Possible!

The third area of misunderstanding about the Church has to do with the phrase, "the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." What did our Lord mean by this statement? What are "the gates of hell"? And in what way could the "gates of hell" prevail against the Church? Did He mean that satanic powers and persecution would not be able to stop the growth of the Church? Did the Lord mean that demonic forces would not be able to penetrate the true body of Christ? While both of these statements are true, most likely the Lord had neither of these two church truths in mind when He made this prediction. To comprehend the amazing truth of this statement, we need to check out the historical background in reference to the gates of ancient cities.

In biblical times, the gates of a city were the key points in the city's defenses. Massive stone gates with multiple inner chambered gates were constructed to withstand opposing armies. To "possess the gate of your enemies" (Genesis 22:17), meant to completely conquer your enemy. When the gates of the city were breached, the attacking army had won. The city was conquered because the gates had not prevailed!

But what about the "gates of hell"? The Greek word used here, translated as "hell," is actually the word "hades." Hades is not the same as hell, or "the lake of fire," but is a word that is used to describe the "realm of the dead," or the place of departed spirits. For an example, read the story told by our Lord in Luke 16:19-31. In this story, the word "hades" is used in Luke 16:23 to describe the place where the unbelieving dead await the final judgment. This distinction is also used in Revelation 20:13-15 where "death and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire."

This important background reminds us of the true state of unbelievers. Without Christ, all humanity is held captive--without hope--behind the gates of hades! John 3:18 tells us that "Whoever believes in Him [the Son of God] will not be condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already." But in Hebrews 2:14-15 we learn that "[Jesus] shared in...humanity so that by His death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil--and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death."

With this background in mind, we can begin to appreciate the tremendous prediction the Lord made in Matthew 16! It's an astounding concept and a wonderful encouragement for believers! When Jesus Christ died and rose again, the power of death was broken. Death was unable to keep its hold on our Lord Jesus--and in His death and resurrection He conquered death itself! Now, as members of His Body, we are also members in His victorious army. We can storm the "gates of hades" and rescue people from the clutches of death! The gates of hades will not prevail against the assault of Christ's victorious Church! Our mission is to act on the truth of Christ's statement and snatch the captives as "brands from the fire" (Zechariah 3:2, Jude 23), since we know that death is a conquered foe. Because the power of death was broken at the cross, the building of the church will go on, living stone by living stone, until the building is complete. The gates of hell will not prevail against it.

Two thousand years of church history have proven the accuracy of our Lord's prediction. Although there have been misunderstandings and confusion over the precise meaning of His words, the ongoing fulfillment of His prophetic statement is wonderfully clear: "Upon this Rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it"!

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