This morning we are thinking about “The Church triumphant.” Our text will be Matthew 16:13-20.
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.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And 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. 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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” Then he strictly charged the disciples to tell no one that he was the Christ.
We consider this morning, one of the great passages in all of the Bible, Matthew chapter 16. For those of us in ministry and for those of us pursuing ministry, it is a passage that we are familiar with. But it is a passage that, in my mind, is paradigmatic for ministry. It is a passage that is a mountain peak in the New Testament, and one that those of us in ministry should come back to again and again and again. It rightly situates our minds about what the church is, and what Jesus has promised to do through it and on its behalf. It is a promise that comes to us, not as something that we occasionally reflect on abstractly in the classroom or in a Bible reading, but we stubbornly cling to day-to-day as we are about the work of the gospel ministry.
Jesus says, “I will build my church. The gates of Hades will not overpower it.” But we confess this morning, if we are honest with ourselves, our moment, and our context, that we do not consider this passage in tranquil times. We consider this passage with a sense of crises in the air. “Crises” is a tired word. We hear of economic crises, cultural crises, and geopolitical crises. It is a word, though tired, is fitting for this passage and for our moment because we rightly understand that we minister in a season–the 21st century–when we have experienced, are experiencing, and shall experience cultural crises.
There are pressures against the Church and pressures against professing Christians who believe that the Scriptures are God’s Word. Day-to-day, as we listen to the news and read the paper, we feel this social-cultural upheaval that is upon us and seems to be intensifying week-to-week. But also, we understand our churches know something of a crisis as well; so many Evangelical churches are plateaued or declining numerically; so many of those pulpits are weak and shallow. So many of those congregations are worldly and unspiritual; so many of our congregations have meaningless church membership where to be in the church is no different, practically speaking, than to be in the world; so many of our churches have a tragic apathy toward the lost.
In this milieu, we find ourselves at Midwestern Seminary on this somewhat spring, March day. We are gathered together in this chapel, thinking about ministry, thinking about God’s call on our lives, and thinking, “Why are we here anyway?” This question is not just to the prospective student, but to all of us – faculty, staff, president, administration – to everyone here who is a part of this great work and great mission – Why? Why are we here? It goes back to five words in Matthew 16 – “I will build my church.” Jesus declares this promise that echoes throughout the ages, and that has proven true throughout every generation and every century throughout church history.
We acknowledge on the one hand that we minister, prepare, and study for a world, a culture, a moment of ministry marked by crises. But we juxtapose that assessment alongside of this passage, and it renews us and reinvigorates us again and again- Sunday after Sunday, Lord’s Day after Lord’s Day, lecture after lecture, mission trip after mission trip. Jesus is doing something infinitely bigger than ourselves and has given us a promise that we can and must cling to – He will build His church.
Remember what is going on in this passage. We come to Matthew 16 and it is an interesting context. The chapter opens with the Pharisees wanting a sign, challenging Jesus as to who he was and what will come. Jesus says in verse four of chapter 16, “An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, but a sign will not be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus, of course, was foreshadowing his own death and resurrection. He says, “You want another sign and you want to see me multiply the food, you want to see me heal the lame, you want to see my walk on water, you want to see a miracle? You have seen enough miracles. There is one more sign that is coming that is the greatest miracle of them all – the sign of Jonah I shall own myself.” Then we see Jesus departing with his disciples, verse 13 tells us, in the district of Caesarea Philippi to the north. He departs with his disciples to reflect with them, to rest with them, to dialog with them, and to ask them this most pointed question – who do people say that the Son of Man is?
I want to talk through these verses this morning pastorally. In light of this chapel gathering and especially on this day of contemplating ministry, I want to make four observations about this text, about the church, about what Jesus has promised, and about what Jesus is doing. The first observation I see unfolding in this passage is that the church is established on the truth. Or we might say, the church is established on sound doctrine.
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.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And 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.
The question is, who do people say that the Son of Man is? It is a question that is a necessary question not only in the 1st century but in the 21st century. It is a question that is necessary not only for the masses but as we shall see momentarily, it is a question that is necessary for every individual who has ever lived. Jesus asked this question to prompt the disciples to think rightly, to think intentionally about who he was and what he was up to. In Jesus’ day, we know there was much Messianic speculation. Jewish boys and Jewish girls were taught from childhood to look for the Messiah. The Jewish people were looking for one who would deliver them spiritually and that had morphed into a deliverance politically as well. They were looking for a Messiah who would come. So it was not an uncommon question to ask or to reflect – is this teacher the Messiah? Is that teacher the Messiah? When will the Messiah come? What shall he look like? What shall mark his ministry? Jesus tips his hand, no doubt, in verse 13 even in how he frames the question, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” This is the title of divinity that we see showing up in places like Daniel 7.
In verse 14, we get a sort-of public opinion survey as to who Jesus was. They say the crowd is saying, “Some say John the Baptist.” Of course, John the Baptist by this point has been beheaded and put to death. “Others Elijah,” the fiery prophet, “but still others Jeremiah,” the weeping prophet. So the opinion of the day has Jesus ranked pretty high. They assess him to be likened to, and perhaps even be John the Baptist returned, or Elijah returned, or Jeremiah returned, or one of the other prophets.
This is the time of year Christians approach Easter. It is also the time of year for non-Christians, when all kinds of chicanery happens about Easter. All we have to do to see the chicanery is turn on the television and go to the History Channel, or the major news networks, or these different shows that will present documentaries entitled, “In Search of the Historical Jesus” or “The Quest for the Historical Jesus, or “Who was the Historical Jesus?” Invariably, when you watch those shows, they always get it wrong. They sit down and interview someone with a Ph.D. from Harvard University or the Ivy League schools, and they ask this individual who was this Jesus? They respond and say things much like we see in verse 14 – Jesus was a great moral teacher; he was a social revolutionary; he was an incredible leader; he performed great works; or he impacted his time so much so he divided the calendar. But invariably, those documentaries which flood the airwaves this time of year, always get it wrong over two points. First, they are unwilling to acknowledge Jesus as God’s only Son, thus making himself equal with the Father. Secondly, they are unwilling to acknowledge that Jesus actually rose from the dead. If you acknowledge that this man 2,000 years ago actually was the Son of God, actually died on a tree, and actually was raised from the dead, then you cannot do it without understanding the demands required of you to live for him, to follow him, to serve him.
They got it wrong in the 1st century and they continue to get it wrong in the 21st century. I was watching one of these shows a few years ago and John Meacham, who is one of my favorite historians, was on there speaking. He has written a number of presidential biographies, and he is a great writer and thinker. But he was out of his league a little bit talking theologically. Meacham is an Episcopalian of the main line stripe, and he was asked about the resurrection of Jesus. He said this, and I will never forget, “Though not factual, the resurrection can still be true.” Now, you have to be smarter than I am not to understand that nonsense. If it is not factual, it cannot be true. That is what you call explaining away the gospel through poetic sleight of hand.
“Who do you say that I am?” Notice verse 15. The question is sharpened. It is a question with dramatic implications for all aspects of our life: evangelism, lifestyle, how we give our time and energy, our resources, and even for us in the room, our calling. Who do you say that I am? This question always has to be sharpened. It is ministerial malpractice to leave this question in the words of verse 13 and not bring it to the directness of verse 15. “Who do you say that I am?” It is more than a personal statement of belief, though it is that. As we will see momentarily, it is the foundational statement of the church itself, and the answer has enormous implications for us as individuals, enormous implications for any and every church, and enormous implications for the cause of Christ.
Jesus asked this question, and I can envision him, now in my mind’s eye, asking this question not wanting so much their assessment of who he was, but asking it with the heart of pastoral and brotherly love for his disciples. Is that not where every such gospel-centered conversation is to go? Not just wondering if someone will check a box or pray a prayer or acknowledge in some shallow way who Jesus is. But with the heart of a pastor and the heart of a brother, understanding that a soul is at stake and eternity is in the balance. Who do you say that I am? I pray that none of us, myself included, can skim over this passage and skim over verse 15 ever in our Christian lives without being pricked anew about the directness and the urgency of answering this question. Jesus founds his church on the truth, on sound doctrine.
Look at verse 16. Simon Peter answers, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” We know Peter. He was oftentimes the odd one who got it wrong. He denied Peter three times before the cock crowed. He drew the sword to slice off the guard’s ear in the Garden of Gethsemane. He was often abrasive, impulsive, and impetuous, but Peter gets it right here. Verse 17 tells us he got it right, not because he was particularly insightful, but because the Lord has revealed it to him: “My Father, who art in heaven…” The point that he makes under divine prompting, divine inspiration, is that Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God. Again, Messianic expectation was not uncommon in his day. Peter throws out on the table the mother of all claims – that Jesus is the fulfillment of this Messianic expectation. Jesus is the one the prophets have spoken of; Jesus is the one our forbearers have longed for; Jesus is the one that our nation has yearned for.
The Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, making himself equal with God the Father – this is a theme throughout Scripture. The deity of Christ is seen in Colossians 1:15, Colossians 2:9, John 1, John 8:58. We see again and again throughout the New Testament these specific statements that Jesus is God’s Son and specific claims by Jesus to be God’s Son. Even in a cursory reading of the Gospel of John you repeatedly pick up that Jesus claimed to be God’s Son, thus making himself equal with the Father. That is precisely why on multiple occasions they picked up stones to kill him. Jesus was not put to death over a misunderstanding. Jesus was put to death because of an understanding. It was because the crowd perceived exactly what he was claiming – to be the Son of God.
Jesus, in every discernable way, demonstrated the marks, the signs, and the abilities of a member of the Trinity. By works – he created, he sustains, he forgives, he raises the dead, he judges. By worship – he received worship from angels, and men, and all people. By his attributes- he demonstrated the attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and immortality. By the names he permitted himself to be called– Lord and God. And, of course, what is given to us in the baptism formula, that we baptize in the name of the Father and the Son and the Spirit. Listen to me closely, the church that forsakes the truth that Jesus is the Son of God is the church that God will forsake. God is not in the business of building churches that undermine and corrupt and confuse who his Son was, who his Son is.
This confession is the foundation of the church. Notice what Jesus says in verse 18. “I say to you that you are Peter and upon this rock, I will build my church. The gates of Hades will not overpower it.” We are going to camp out in verse 18 for a while, but just reading on into verse 18 we see where Jesus then takes Peter’s confession, and he says he is going to do something with it. He says, “I will build my church.” Our Roman Catholic neighbors understand this to be a stationing of Peter as the first pope, the establishment of the office of the papacy, and apostolic succession through it. We obviously do not read it that way for a number of reasons, not the least of which, that is not what it says here. But also in many other places like Matthew 18:1-4; Matthew 20:20-21; or any other place where you see the question about order or rank in the kingdom, Jesus never established Peter as superior.
So, what is Jesus saying here in verse 18? It is most commonly understood in Evangelical circles that Jesus is saying that upon this confession over who I am, I will build my church. I think that we should understand that, but also understand that it entails a little more than that as well. I believe Jesus is promising here that he will build his church upon the truth of this confession, but not merely the statement of his deity, but also the teaching that would come through the apostles. Ephesians 2:20 tells us that we are being built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone.
In Acts 2:42, we see that the early church gave themselves to the apostle’s teaching. First Corinthians 3:11 tells us that no one can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, Jesus Christ. The foundation of the church is God-given revelation, and Jesus is the cornerstone of the church. The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ. Listen to my closely. The church is birthed in Acts chapter two at Pentecost, but here we see it in early form, projected, spoken to come. It is built out through the book of Acts and through the New Testament Epistles by the apostle’s teaching. So we need to be careful, and our alarm bells ought to go up every time we hear someone saying something like this, “We want to build our church on Jesus, but we do not want to get hung up on doctrine.” Jesus, in this passage, is hung up on doctrine. Jesus is promising to build his church upon this confession and out from it the apostle’s teaching. Doctrine does not confuse the church or distract the church. Sound doctrine ensures the church.
This brings me to my second observation about this passage, and that is Jesus is Lord over his church. Notice what Jesus says in verse 18. “I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.” Notice the ownership we see in verse 18. “I will build my church.” There is a possessiveness to these five words. There is a sense of ownership that Jesus conveys, and it instructs us as to how the church is to function; how we are to serve within it; how we are to envision and understand and interpret our own calls to ministry; and how we even process our lives at stations like this. We do not sign up to enhance our resume. We do not sign up to bring our great ideas to the local church. We do not sign up to demonstrate our giftedness or to impress people with our abilities. We sign up understanding that Jesus is Lord of his church.
The church is Jesus’ foremost love and interest. In fact, it may be impossible to overstate the centrality of the Church in the New Testament. Jesus died for his Church; he purchased it with his blood. Christ is head of his Church; the church is referred to as the Bride of Christ. We are told that Christ will return for his Church. Christ gives his followers for service in his Church. Christ calls men to lead and preach in his Church. Christ is building his Church. The book of Revelation gives us a picture of Christ walking amongst his churches and holding his pastors, his elders, in his hand. A believer is disciplined for sin when it takes place in the context of the Church. And we see, of course, in Acts 9, when Jesus confronts Saul on the Damascus Road, he says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” To persecute the Church is to persecute Jesus.
Here is what I want to impress upon you: how we understand our Christian lives must lived in the context of the local church. We are not free-agent Christians who just roam around from church-to-church, from season-to-season, from place-to-place, with marginal involvement or engagement in the local church. We are baptized into the church. We are called to come together in covenant communities known as the local church. Our first sense of identity and community ought not be a place of work or even a seminary, but ought to be our local church. We want to place ourselves in that context and intentionally involve and integrate ourselves into that local church.
I was talking to someone a couple of weeks ago on time-change Sunday. Fall time change is good on Sunday, but springtime change in not so good on Sunday. It has always mystified me, why we have to do this on Saturday night? Why can’t we do this on Thursday afternoon at 2:00? Doesn’t that make a lot more sense? If I were president of the United States, that would be the first act I would move. Anyway, so spring is always kind of a gulp in the morning. Your kids are foggy-eyed; you are trying to get to church on time; and I bumped into someone around town and asked where they went to church. They said, “When we want to go to early service, we go to church X. When we want to go to late service, we go to church Y.” Then they kind of smiled and said, “Given that this is time change Sunday, you know where we went.” I had 18 alarm bells going off in my mind, and I wanted to say, “Hearing your casual commitment to the church, I am concerned about where you are going eternally.” Why would I feel that? Why would I be concerned about that? I challenge you to find in the New Testament a place where Christians just anonymously roam around without actually showing up in community in the local church.
Jesus is Lord over his Church. I once had a church member tell me, “What I love about our church is that our church is not just my church; it is not just your church; it is our church.” I know what they meant, and the sentiment was a sweet one, but it is actually off. It is not my church; it is not your church; it is not our church; it is His church. If you understand that, then everything from church government, community, what we preach and teach, and how we engage and minister is affected. Jesus is Lord over his church.
The third observation is found at the end of verse 18. Jesus ensures the church’s future. “I will build my church.” I understand the church was formally constituted at Pentecost in Acts 2, but here in a non-technical sense, Jesus is referring to the church as the ecclesia, the “called out ones.” The point from verse 18, from these five words, is not so much the timing but the certainty. I just want to reflect triumphantly with you for a moment that 2,000 years later this promise has never been invalid. This promise has never been broken. We are in a chapel today, on a campus today, supported by a denomination today, serving together today. All of this is because of this promise. You are here today on Preview Day because of this promise.
Jesus says, “I will build my church.” Every word matters. “I” – Jesus himself. Not Peter, not Paul, not Billy Graham, not gifted seminary professors. Jesus will – not “may” or “might” or “hope to,” he will. “I will build.” I love the activity, the industry. It is not passive. It is not, “I will permit to be built.” “I will build my…” there is a possession here. “I will build my church.” Jesus never promised to build your Bible study, your parachurch ministry or your discipleship group. Jesus did not promise to build this seminary. Jesus said, “I will build my church.” And your Bible study group or youth ministry or this seminary all have a right to exist and be blessed by Jesus inasmuch as we understand priority number one is serving Jesus in his great mission to build his Church.
Where was” For the Church” born? From the verse we are looking at. Because if we have eyes to see in the New Testament, we see on page-after-page-after-page, the Church. We hear it with a loud roar. We have to almost overhear theological training and ministry preparation. It is there, but you almost have to overhear it. But the Church is a loud roar, and that is what we are and what we want to be a part of.
Jesus says, “I will build my church.” So how is he doing? What has taken place for 2,000 years? The church has metastasized around the world. You say, but wait a minute, now we are here and I am reading about cultural Christianity being on the wane. Sure that is true, but Jesus does not say, “I will build your cultural Christianity.” He says, “I will build my Church.” Even though cultural Christianity is waning, the Church is flourishing. You say, “Now wait a minute, I’m from down the street, and we used to have this many churches and now we have X number of churches, and our church that I grew up in is smaller than it used to be.” But what is going on in the house group church movement right now in China? It is exploding. What is going on throughout nations in Africa? The church is blossoming. What is going on in Latin America? Incredible things. So, these five words in verse 18 have been irresponsibly clung to by some who take it as some odd blanket assurance that Jesus would build their particular church here no matter how passive they are or how lazy they are, or how prone to bitterness and church fights they are. Many a church has closed its doors having previously clung to these five words. So this is not a license for passivity or laziness or bitterness or anything that would hinder the church, but it is a perennial promise that Jesus will not forsake his church.
Think about what has happened in 2,000 years. Empires have risen and fallen, great leaders have come and gone. Movements have started and wilted. Assaults, persecution, false doctrine, think about everything that could have once and for all finally destroyed the church. But it stands triumphantly fulfilling these five words throughout the ages.
Occasionally when I am out about town or in a restaurant someone asks, “What do you do? Where do you work?” I say, “I work at Midwestern Seminary.” And they ask, “What is Midwestern Seminary?” And I say, “It is a place where we train pastors and ministers and missionaries and counselors and people like that.” And they say, “What do you do there?” And I say, “I am the president.” And they say, “Oh, what does the President do?” And I always get tickled because many people do not understand ministry and do not understand a seminary and do not understand us. They assume my job is to take gifted men and women who are already poised for success in whatever vocation of life they may choose because they are smart and they have a magnetic personality, they have great people skills. We just kind of polish them up a bit and channel their gifting and their abilities toward the church as opposed to selling insurance or practicing medicine or any other commendable vocation. Inasmuch as we do that, then Jesus builds his church. I am chastened every time I read the words of Paul that there are not many mighty, not many noble, not many wise according to this age.
Our job is not to be a group of highly gifted and accomplished people. We are not called to present ourselves well and thus attract gifted, capable, sterling students. Students who are already poised for a life of success in whatever type of vocation they may choose, and we just kind of give them a religious credential and send them on their way. Our job and our aim is to acknowledge that we are just normal folk, saved by the grace of God, purchased by the blood of the lamb. We have been set apart by Jesus in the spirit of Ephesians to equip the Church of the Lord Jesus Christ. And we, in our own fallen, error-prone way, seek to do it again and again, day-after-day. We draw students who want to be a part of that and want to, with us, cling to this promise that He will build His church. It is not based upon the ACT scores or the GPAs of our incoming class but upon this promise.
There is a fourth and final observation here and that is this: Jesus cares about the purity of the Church. Verse 19 says, “I will give you the keys to the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” This again seems like an odd statement to be made in the context of building the Church. We understand it as well as we understand Matthew 18, which says nearly the same thing. What is going on here? Who is binding and loosing? Do we have a priest-like authority as members of the clergy? No. It is referring to sin here in verse 19 and in Matthew chapter 18 as well. Jesus is saying that we, meaning ministers of the gospel – those who serve him, do not have the power to declare, but we do have the power to acknowledge. We acknowledge the binding and loosing of sin based upon one’s lack of repentance or one’s expressed and demonstrated repentance. And this is based upon the goodness of Christ, the practice of Christ, in saving us from our sin. But why here? Why, after verse 18, “I will build my church.” Why verse 19 – this odd insertion about binding and loosing, about sin, about the church? Because nothing will stop the building of Christ’s church, but one thing will certainly muddy up his testimony, and that is sin in the church. Unrepentant sin, scandalous sin, the televangelist who wants your money, the formerly erstwhile faithful pastor who steps out with the secretary, the choir member who cheats in business, or the deacon who is course in tongue on the golf course, are all a reproach on Christ. When sin takes place in the church it stymies, it hinders, it blemishes the glory of God.
This is a sermon unto itself in the ministerial responsibility we have to seek to cultivate godly fellowship and godly accountability, and to establish a community that reflects God’s glory. How many Southern Baptists do we have these days? Seriously, it is a good question. Some may say, “You are a seminary president, you ought to know.” I do know that our SBC annual says we have about 15.7 million. How many Southern Baptists show up to church on any given Sunday? About 5 million. What does that do with 10 million? What does that do with 10 million people who evidently are on our rolls? Millions upon millions upon millions that, though they once signed up to be a part of a church, have no ongoing engagement with that church. In any other human organization or body or human community we would find that tragically problematic. Should we find that any less problematic when we are thinking about the church of our Lord Jesus Christ?
This came to me in clear focus last year. I was reminded anew as I was down on the Plaza with my wife. We were walking around just kind of window shopping, and we walked in a store there. It was a men’s clothing store, and we walked in and it was one of the stores you walk through and look more than you buy because it is pretty pricy. I was there milling around and a salesman came up to me who was in his early seventies or mid-seventies maybe, and he began to talk to me. I was trying to keep moving. I did not want to stop. I just had a few minutes there, so I wanted to keep moving, and he was doing the salesman thing talking it up and trying to make the human connection asking, “Where do you live?” And I said, “North Kansas City.” He said, “Where in North Kansas City?” I said, “Just off Vivion Road.” He said, “I grew up on Vivion Road.” So the conversation keeps going. At this point I am astounded because every sentence uttered is so profane. I am shocked this man is talking to me this way. Not like Jason, the minister, or Jason, the Christian, just Jason, the human being. Meaning, I did not know sales people could talk this way. Every sentence was coarse and profane and had an explicative in it. I am trying to leave and extract myself and about that time my wife comes up and gives me the bug-eyed look as to how this guy is talking. I am trying to leave, and he says to me, where on Vivion Road do you live? I said, I live kind of on Vivion and North Oak, and he said, “I know exactly where that is.” He said, “They sold that property there. Do you live in that white house?” I said, “Yes sir, I do.” And he said, “I thought that Baptist Seminary owned the white house.” Again, after like five minutes of vulgarity bombs I said, “It does.” And he said, “Are you affiliated with the seminary?” And I said, “Yes sir, I am.” And he said, “Well, what do you do there?” And I said, “I am the president.” And he said, “Hallelujah, praise the Lord.” He said to me, “I am a Baptist.” My son-in-law is a Baptist preacher, and I love that Baptist seminary. Again, in five minutes you see verse 19. The Church is too beautiful, too consequential for us not to take seriously the purity of the Church.
We have a glorious calling because we have a glorious Savior who has established and is building a glorious entity. He could have chosen to build anything under the sun and more. He could have chosen to use any of the masses of humanity and more, but he has chosen to build the church and he has chosen to use people like us in this room. Never lose the majesty, the romance, and the splendor of that call.