Nothing Will Stop Jesus from Building His Church
“I’m frightened.” These were my Pop’s last words. I saw him just after death, and his face and body evinced struggle. He did not profess to be a Christian, and I asked my pastor whether this struggle was perhaps a sign that God was working on his spirit, and that perhaps he could have come to salvation in his last hour?
My pastor, knowing that Pop had not professed faith, answered with a straightforward “No.”
I was a little shocked. How could he speak with such certainty?
Matthew 16:13-19 explains how, a passage that Michael Green rightly calls “the hinge on which the whole Gospel turns.”
When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” (Matt. 16:13-14; all Scripture passages from NIV version)
Caesarea Philippi, at the foot of snow-veiled Mount Hermon (the source of the Jordan river) is in the picturesque northern extremity of Palestine. In Matthew’s day it was the famously pagan center of pan-worship. Jesus probably retreated there with his disciples for a time of rest and instruction.
The lessons begin with this vital question: “Who do the people say the Son of Man is?”
“Son of Man” is Jesus’ favorite designation for himself. It captures both his humanity and, from Daniel 7:13-14, both his divine nature and divine destiny of universal and eternal rule (see Matt. 26:64).
Jesus knows exactly who he is. And by his authoritative teaching, healings, domination over the demonic realm, and supernatural command and control over nature, he has categorically revealed his identity and mission.
Having seen and heard this, what conclusions have the people drawn? “John the Baptist, Elijah, or Jeremiah ...” Perhaps these great prophets had been resurrected in the person of Jesus. Without doubt he reprised the spirit of their ministry.
Is there a common thread? Were these three not the more poignant and pessimistic of the prophets? Certainly they were very exalted Jewish figures. Should not Jesus be flattered by the comparison? Not at all. None of them, like Jesus, claimed a divine identity and mission—nor proved it with supernatural acts of power. They were as inferior to Jesus as the ambassador is to the King, as the creature is to the Creator (Matt. 23:37).
What may have been meant as a compliment was in truth a profound denigration, a patronizing and willful denial of Jesus’ manifest identity.
The patronizing has never paused. A person with a passing knowledge of Jesus may perhaps deign to grant his existence, or even his importance as “a great moral teacher.”
Beyond excuse, however, are those New Testament scholars who shut their eyes to the arc-lamp of his glory that blazes from every paragraph of the Gospels, and who demote and disqualify and denigrate Jesus as “a very fine example.” J. Gresham Machen described this:
The modern liberal preacher reverences Jesus; he has the name of Jesus forever on his lips; he speaks of Jesus as the supreme revelation of God; he enters, or tries to enter, into the religious life of Jesus. But Jesus for him is an example of faith, not the object of faith. (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 85)
Any conception of Jesus that falls short of what Jesus revealed himself to be is not only an error or lie—it is perverse idolatry. It is to concoct a false image and to call it “Jesus.”
“But what about you?” Jesus asked.
“Who do you say I am?” The NIV captures the urgent personal emphasis and the life and death probing of the original. What do you yourself think? Your answer to this question fixes your eternal destiny!
Notice also how important it is to say what we think about Jesus. Heart and mouth must work together, for a merely inward faith is no faith at all (Rom. 10:8-11).
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:16)
The Christ is the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Divine and Saving Prophet, Priest, and King promised on every page of the Old Testament (Luke 24:27). And Jesus is the eternal “Son of the Living God” in a way that no one else is or ever can be (John 1:1-3).
Like King Josiah before him, Peter smashes down the idols to leave nothing but the One True Jesus Christ.
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven.” (Matt. 16:17)
The makarios, the blessed, is the one who should count themselves truly happy. This is the person the world should congratulate (see Matt. 5:3-10).
Why is Peter so blessed? Because, literally, no “flesh and blood” had brought him to this truth, least of all himself. He was blessed because the truth he had owned and expressed had been revealed (apokalyptō) by “my Father.” He had only believed and said what the Father had, first of all, placed there.
“You are one of the happy ones, Simon, whose father is Jonah, because my Father in Heaven has come and opened your eyes and mouth to say what you have just said.”
Just as Jesus prayed in Matthew 11:25-26,
“I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure.”
And now Jesus, just as he did with Jacob after wrestling with him at Peniel (Gen. 32), confirms a new name upon Peter (John 1:42).
“And I tell you that you are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build my church.” (Matt. 16:18a)
Jesus gave Peter a new name for a new mission.
Jesus would build his church on this rock which is Peter. At first glance you couldn’t imagine a more sandy and wobbly foundation. For in the very next moment Peter—Satan-like—tempts Jesus to forsake his salvation mission (Matt. 16:21-23). And it is Peter who disowns Jesus three times at the moment of his most desperate need.
Jesus will not build his church on frail Peter-the-man, but Peter’s rock-solid, God-revealed confession of the true identity of Jesus.
Peter, and the Twelve, and then the whole Church would proclaim the truth about Jesus to the world (Matt. 28:19). And as God opened the hearts and minds of many to know and believe this truth, just as he had done with Peter, the Church would be built.
“And the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (16:18b)
Hades, the New Testament Greek equivalent of Sheol, is the place of the dead. In this context it represents the kingdom of Satan and hell, and the spiritually dead who are his miserable slaves.
The gates of a city represent its strength and power. The gates of Hades would attack Jesus and his church but would fail to withstand him. The building—think Ezra and the returned exiles—would go on. “The church is incapable of overthrow,” commented Chrysostom.
How brilliant to read these words in light of what immediately follows. Jesus was about to “suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests, and the teachers of the law,” and “must be killed” (Matt. 16:21). Jesus nailed to the cross on Golgotha would have appeared to any sane observer to be the triumph of evil and the failure of his mission.
What seemed to be Satan’s victory would in fact be Christ’s victory.
But the gates of Hades would not conquer, and what seemed to be Satan’s victory would in fact be Christ’s victory. What appeared to be the death of the nascent church was in fact the accomplishment of its redemption.
And there’s a second way of looking at this “not overcoming.” Jesus’ exorcisms showed that he came to deliver Satan’s death-bound slaves from his “dominion of darkness” (Col. 1:13). “If I drive out demons by the Spirit of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Matt. 12:28). Jesus is thus the hero who enters the strong devil’s house and ties him up and plunders his captive slaves (Matt. 12:29-30; see also Luke 13:16, Isa. 49:25). His assault upon the gates of Hades is irresistible. Like mighty Samson, he rips the gates of Hades from their hinges and carries out her pallid captives to life and freedom.
Jesus has been building his church, and hell has not kept back a single person. How can it when the revelation act that builds the church comes from the Father?
“My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.” (John 10:29)
When Jesus comes to free someone, nothing can withstand him!
Not one person whom Jesus wants included will be excluded.
Thus, the church is being built at exactly the rate that Jesus wants it to be built. Not one person faster or slower. Hell has not slowed the construction by even a second. Not one person whom Jesus wants included will be excluded.
Jesus by his death has stormed hell to redeem his people. He has died for them, all their sins are paid for, they are no longer guilty, and hell has no claim on them.
He will divide the spoils with the strong, because he poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors. For he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isa. 53:12)
Let’s not flinch to say it: Jesus is the Lord of Hades. He has total power over it. He decides who remains there; he decides who is freed. He declares in Revelation 1:18,
“I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (See also Isa. 22:21-22)
And here is the remarkable thing, he has given these very keys to the church!
“I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matt. 16:19)
Jesus has entrusted saving truth to the church. Thus, the church declares who will be in the kingdom, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household” (Acts 16:31). And the church declares who is outside of the kingdom, “You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God” (Acts 8:21, see also Luke 11:52).
Jesus invests his church with stupendous ministerial authority.
In John 20:22-23, Jesus “breathed on his disciples and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’”
Jesus has decided to unlock heaven to some and lock heaven to others, through the evangelism of the church, a fact reiterated in Matthew 18:18 in the context of church discipline:
“I tell you the truth, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
Jesus invests his church with stupendous ministerial authority. The church, on the basis of the authority of Jesus Christ granted to it, is given the responsibility and duty to make declarations, based on the truth of God’s word, who will enter heaven, and who will not. And the church, through its government, must declare this, for people need to know! The church accomplishes this role ordinarily through its government of elders exercising church discipline (Matt. 18:15-18). They are shepherds of the church on earth who help guard us and listen to a person’s confession of faith in Christ Jesus—is it credible? Is there fruit?
This is how my pastor could say with such certainty that my Pop, who had not professed faith, was not saved. And what was the very next thing he said? “But God is good.”
Amen. Jesus is good. And he will build his church in his good and perfect way in his good and perfect time.
Don’t fear for the future of Jesus’ church.
Many times Jesus’ church has seemed close to extinction: under Saul’s savage persecution of the church in Acts 7-8, under the vicious imperial persecutions of the first three centuries, under the scourge of Muslim conquest in the seventh and eighth centuries, under the almost complete loss of the gospel in the Middle Ages, under the toxin of liberalism prior to World War II, and so on.
Jesus will build his church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail.
And don’t look at your own family and friends with a sense of helpless fear. Yes, Satan will attack them hard. Yes, we must pray without ceasing. Yes, we bring the life-giving gospel whenever and however we can with our words and godly actions. And Jesus will build his church at exactly his pace and his time. He will bring them in, or not, for his good. And he will do it in his perfect time.
May his words turn our fears into trust and confident joy.
Campbell Markham is a Presbyterian pastor in Hobart, Tasmania. He blogs at Campbell Markham: Thoughts and Letters.
The Church (Contours of Christian Theology) by Edmund P. Clowney
This page may contain affiliate links through which Beautiful Christian Life may receive a commission to help cover its operating costs.