Hi everyone. Thanks to Carl for inviting me, the Top Men at Ref21 for allowing a menace like me to cause my brand of mayhem here in this part of the mostly-respectable blogosphere, and to my wife for her always-generous approach to my one-line life (which looks a lot like "don't ask, don't tell.").
Let's get to it. In Matthew 16, Jesus declares the following:
Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! [He says] 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.
That's quite a declaration from Jesus. He started with what looked like some sort of opinion poll or a survey of ideas about what it is that was happening as he was going around with these fellows teaching, and he changes the discussion from what everyone is expecting from Jesus to what God Himself is doing, and is about to do, through Jesus.
See: Jesus did not come to appeal to flesh and blood, or to fulfill the desires of our flesh and blood: Jesus came to do what God Himself wants accomplished. Those who see it, says Jesus, will be "like a Rock" - like Simon who is the first to say it out loud. This is why he calls him "Peter." He's like a rock. This is plainly a reference back to the parable in Matthew 7 -- the wise man and the foolish man, yes? The foolish man built his house upon the sand; the wise man built his house upon the rock - and the rain came tumbling down. Right? This is the end of the sermon on the mount -- "the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock." So on the same rock which caused Peter to declare Jesus to be the Christ and not merely a prophet, Christ himself will build what he calls "my church" - and the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it.
Consider this carefully: Jesus wants to set up or expose the priority of things, contrasting what "everyone" thinks against what the Disciples think - and in doing so, as I said earlier, he starts with Himself. "Who do you say that I am?" It's clear: Peter's answer is God's answer to the question, because Peter got this answer from God. But as soon as He gets the right answer, Jesus draws a conclusion: Since I am the Messiah, the Christ, I will build my church on the rock of faith which God has given. The first conclusion Jesus draws about the priority of things - in this passage anyway - is that if there is a Christ, there is a Church.
Now, look: the hang-up that will appear immediately is this - some people will say, "Jesus is here speaking about the universal church, or the invisible church - the set of people from Adam to the last person saved in Revelation - and that is as broad as the scope of the cross-work of Christ." The reason they do this is simple: they read Jesus here to be saying, "I will build a church in general, with an indeterminate number in it."
The reasons to read this in that way are simple: nobody wants Jesus to do anything which offends. We want Jesus to be saying things which are inviting only, and not in any way intimidating or putting demands on us. And let's face it: it is easier on us if we think the church is merely an indeterminate and disembodied set of people because that means there's nobody in particular in that church.
I think Jesus is making a different point here.
When the apostle Paul reflects on those consequences, he says this to the Corinthians (1Cor 1):
God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, "Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord."
In Paul's view of it, the idea that Christ builds a church is not a theoretical idea which we can sort of modestly ponder in its ineffable wisdom. Look: in Paul's view, he can write a letter to the church. You can't write a letter to a theoretical group of people. In Paul's view of it, the church is nothing if it is not a real gathering of people. But they are not together not because of who they are. Who they are is stupid and foolish. They are brought together because of who Christ is - and look at this: they are not together in theory but together in fact. As we read 1 Cor 1-3 with Paul, that's his point - it's even an insult to God to say things like, "well, I follow MacArthur, and you follow John Wesley, and you follow Paul Washer, and you follow Rick Warren."
We must see this in Christ's declaration that he will build his church - because he's not saying that to the wind, or writing it in a manifesto as a claim for the ages to people not yet in evidence. He's saying it to the disciples who are right here, right now, in front of him. This fellow here here? He is Simon Peter. He's standing on the rock of faith Jesus was talking about back on the hillside. And what he's got is what Jesus will build his church on.
This gets buried behind that word "church." In Greek, it is the word "ecclesia." Most of you have heard that before, I am sure. The word means "an assembly," or "a group called together for a common purpose." It is not a word like "citizen" - although Christians are called "citizens" elsewhere in the Bible. A "citizen" can be in a place but not of a place - or at the same time, they can be an American, but present in Canada or Mexico or China. To be a "citizen" is to be a class of person without regard to your current whereabouts. "ecclesia" is not like being a "member" - because I can be a member of a political party and never vote and never meet another soul who believes what I believe.
But an "assembly", a "church" as we translate it: it's not an association in theory. It's an association in person, a coming together in one place. In an "ecclesia," everyone is present. When the Greeks used this word, they used it to describe a body of people which is called out in public for a purpose of ruling, or doing the things required for government. I'm working this over for you only to say this: for us to misread Christ here to mean some kind of invisible body where the people are vitually linked together merely by a mark or a quality entirely misses Jesus' point.
He's saying that as the Christ, he's going to bring a real body of believers together, starting with this fellow Simon Peter.
Christ will build his church - it is the first necessary consequence Jesus tells his Disciples. This is interesting because Jesus had what we might call a target-rich environment in Judea and Caesarea. The Romans occupied the land; the religious rulers were corrupt and hypocritical; the standard of living, let's face is, was, to say the least, impoverished - and Jesus was the Messiah. He could have said anything as the first order of business:
"Flesh and Blood did not declare this to you Peter, and because of your faith I will rain my wrath down on Caesar, after whom Caesarea Phillipi is blasphemously named."
"Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah - and to show you my power as Messiah, bring the Scribes and Pharisees as my enemies before me so that they I may lay them under my footstool!"
"Upon your faith, Simon, I claim healing upon the whole land, and wealth, and prosperity, and good marriages!"
No: the first order of business was to declare that as Christ, he must have the Church. He must have people who have faith in Him, built upon the rock which cannot be shaken. Since that is the case, let me propose something to you when we think about this fallen world which we live in which is full of trouble: our first order of business, if we believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God, ought to be to have the church, that is "that which Christ builds on the basis of real faith in him in real people like Peter."