Church & Sacraments

Baptismal Blessing

Baptismal Blessing

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby teaches about the meaning and significance of baptism in the video below. He concludes with a beautiful baptismal blessing that originated from the Church of Scotland:

“For you Jesus Christ came into the world. For you he lived and showed God’s love. For you he suffered the darkness of Calvary and cried at the last, ‘It is accomplished.’ For you he triumphed over death and rose to new life. For you he reigns at God’s right hand. All this he did for you, though you do not know it yet.”

Anglican baptism services follow traditional liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. Usually that means the parents of the child being baptized offer confessions of their Christian faith—they verbally reject the devil, deceit, and sin, they submit to Jesus Christ, and they commit to lead their child to do so as well.

See the video here.

 

The Bible and Anglican Liturgy

The Bible and Anglican Liturgy

Carl Trueman writes that in the Anglican liturgy, one finds “a structure of worship which is determined by the interface between theological truth and biblically-defined existential need.”  Trueman’s blog post is about about his visit to an Anglican service and the realization that Anglican worship services are both filled with and shaped by the Bible more than “any Protestant evangelical church of which I am aware – than any church, in other words, which actually claims to take the word of God seriously and place it at the centre of its life.”

Readings I have found helpful in thinking about a theology of liturgical worship:

In For the Life of the World Alexander Schmemann suggests an approach to the world and life within it, which stems from the liturgical experience of the Orthodox Church. He understands issues such as secularism and Christian culture from the perspective of the unbroken experience of the Church, as revealed and communicated in her worship, in her liturgy – the sacrament of the world, the sacrament of the Kingdom.

Zahl writes: “I believe in Bible-based verticality, which is another way of saying formal-litiurgical worship.” He reminds us that worship should be vertical, biblical, and Godward. No element of worship should creep into a service without having to pass this one-question test: “Does it accurately reflect Bible truth about God, Christ, and human?”

The worship of the Christian community, properly understood and done, leads worshipers to act out in their lives the love of God, which is at the heart of our worship. Worship also provides the power and the sustenance which makes this style of living possible. This Christian style of living, moreover, drives those who are committed to it back to the worship of God, to find forgiveness and strength. When this interdependent relationship is understood, the power of worship is illuminated and the power to live increased.

Liturgy For Living remains a classic text in the field of Anglican/Episcopal liturgy. This highly readable overview explores the meaning of worship from a theological, historical, and spiritual perspective. It then examines the history, theology, and meaning of specific Anglican liturgies including: Holy Baptism, Confirmation, the Daily Office, the Holy Eucharist, and the various pastoral offices.

Excerpts from Trueman’s blog post:

“So what exactly had she witnessed, I asked myself? Well, at a general level she had heard the English language at its most beautiful and set to an exalted purpose: the praise of Almighty God. She would also have seen a service with a clear biblical logic to it, moving from confession of sin to forgiveness to praise to prayer. She would also have heard this logic explained to her by the minister presiding, as he read the prescribed explanations that are built in to the very liturgy itself. The human tragedy and the way of salvation were both clearly explained and dramatized by the dynamic movement of the liturgy. And she would have witnessed all of this in an atmosphere of hushed and reverent quiet.”

“In terms of specific detail, she would also have heard two whole chapters of the Bible read out loud: one from the Old Testament and one from the New. Not exactly the whole counsel of God but a pretty fair snapshot. She would have been led in a corporate confession of sin. She would have heard the minister pronounce forgiveness in words shaped by scripture. She would have been led in corporate prayer in accordance with the Lord’s own prayer. She would have heard two whole psalms sung by the choir. She would have had the opportunity to sing a couple of hymns drawn from the rich vein of traditional hymnody and shot through with scripture. She would have been invited to recite the Apostles’ Creed (and thus come pretty close to being exposed to the whole counsel of God). She would have heard collects rooted in the intercessory concerns of scripture brought to bear on the real world. And, as I noted earlier, all of this in the exalted, beautiful English prose of Thomas Cranmer.”

“Yet here is the irony: in this liberal Anglican chapel, the hijabi experienced an hour long service in which most of the time was spent occupied with words drawn directly from scripture. She heard more of the Bible read, said, sung and prayed than in any Protestant evangelical church of which I am aware – than any church, in other words, which actually claims to take the word of God seriously and place it at the centre of its life. Cranmer’s liturgy meant that this girl was exposed to biblical Christianity in a remarkably beautiful, scriptural and reverent fashion. I was utterly convicted as a Protestant minister that evangelical Protestantism must do better on this score: for all of my instinctive sneering at Anglicanism and formalism, I had just been shown in a powerful way how far short of taking God’s word seriously in worship I fall.”

Why the Rising Social Awareness in the Church Should Encourage Us

Why the Rising Social Awareness in the Church Should Encourage Us

Recently, we have begun to see an encouraging trend in Christian circles: a greater awareness of violence and oppression (such as human trafficking), as well as an increased concern for rescuing and caring for victims. We are seeing an explosion of attention to social justice issues in organizations like Passion, International Justice Mission, and the World Evangelical Alliance, and with the publication of books like God in a Brothel and The White Umbrella. Everywhere you look, churches, parachurch organizations, and individual Christians are waking up to the hidden world of injustice, violence, abuse, and slavery around us—and taking action.

The Bible does not hesitate to depict the harsh reality of violence and oppression, and in fact God’s people are clearly called to fight for justice and mercy for all people. Throughout the entire Bible, God is portrayed as one who is just and merciful in his dealings with humanity. Psalm 68:4-5 says, for example, that God is “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.” Theologians from a wide variety of backgrounds—from Gustavo Gutierrez to Nicholas Wolterstorff to Tim Keller—have concluded that God has a special place in his heart for the poor and vulnerable. Indeed, part of Israel’s vocation was to enact social justice, not for its own sake, but because in so doing Israel would reveal the character of God to the surrounding nations, as a city set on a hill.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and declared that these words of Isaiah were fulfilled in him:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:17)

In this declaration and his ministry, Jesus showed that bringing freedom for captives and relief to the poor and oppressed is crucial to his divine mission. His ultimate act of liberation was his substitutionary death and victorious resurrection, which set his people free from slavery to sin and death. Yet his teachings and his example show us that proclaiming the good news of Christ’s saving work should be accompanied by tangible acts of love, service, and mercy toward our neighbors if the gospel message is to be recognized in its full power.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus’ example revealed God’s heart for the despised, the weak, the abused, and the vulnerable. Jesus spent significant amounts of time with children, women, the poor, the diseased, Samaritans, and other outcast and disliked groups, valuing and loving those who were excluded by the society of his day. This paradoxical approach to the power structures of the world is echoed by Paul when he writes, “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” (1 Cor. 1:27-29).

Apologetic of Mercy

Historically, the Christian church has, at its best, been known for exemplary love and sacrificial service to the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Such service has provided a powerful apologetic for the gospel. The fourth-century church provides just one example:

“In his attempt to reestablish Hellenic religion in the empire, [the Emperor] Julian instructed the high priest of the Hellenic faith to imitate Christian concern for strangers. Referring to Christianity as “atheism,” he asked, “Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?” He therefore instructed the priest to establish hostels for needy strangers in every city and also ordered a distribution of corn and wine to the poor, strangers, and beggars. “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.”

Similarly, in more recent history, Christian churches of the 18th and 19th centuries led the charge for the abolition of slavery, again providing a strong apologetic for the Christian faith and visibly embodying Jesus’ mission to proclaim liberty to captives.

Social action is an opportunity for Christian churches to take the gospel to those who are most in need, provide an alternative community centered on Jesus (the church) to the marginalized and oppressed, and show the transformative power of the gospel to the watching world. Moreover, responding to oppression and social injustice in our world and our communities is a way the church can practice the charge of Jeremiah 29 for God’s people to seek the welfare of the cities where God has placed us, and to obey the call of James to practice “pure religion” (James 1:27) by caring for the most vulnerable.

In light of the theology of justice that permeates Scripture, we should give thanks that the renewed emphasis on care for victims and the oppressed has helped many Christians better realize a neglected aspect of our calling in the world. As Christopher J. H. Wright says, “Mission that claims the high spiritual ground of preaching only a gospel of personal forgiveness and salvation without the radical challenge of the full biblical demands of God’s justice and compassion, without a hunger and thirst for justice, may well expose those who respond to its partial truths to the same dangerous verdict. The epistle of James seems to say as much to those in his own day who had managed to drive an unbiblical wedge between faith and works, the spiritual and the material. If faith without works is dead, mission without social compassion and justice is biblically deficient.”

As we preaches the gospel of Christ’s atoning work, leading to liberation from sin, we must also apply that liberating and atoning work to the evils of this world. Otherwise we are like the person to whom James refers in his epistle: “and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:16)

Put simply, without embracing both the physical and also spiritual aspects of redemption, Christians will have an incomplete concept of God’s mission for the world.

Creeds and Deeds

As we celebrate the church’s reawakening attention to oppression and emphasis on action, we must watch out for our historical tendency to swing between extremes. One side focuses exclusively or primarily on meeting material needs—this could be labeled the “deeds not creeds” extreme, with its focus on action at the expense of proclamation. This approach, frequently but incorrectly labeled “social gospel,” reduces human beings to merely material beings and ignores the need for spiritual new birth and forgiveness of sin through the work of Christ, received through faith by hearing the word of God’s grace.

Fearing this pitfall, we sometimes swing to another extreme, the “anti-social gospel,” which could be dubbed “creeds not deeds.” This extreme emphasizes sound doctrine and focuses on proclamation, but meets only “spiritual” needs while ignoring or minimizing tangible action. As Michael Horton argues, a “creeds not deeds” approach fails because it is actually incompatible with biblical doctrine:

“While it is certainly possible to have a church that is formally committed to Christian doctrine—even in the form of creeds, confessions, and catechisms, without exhibiting any interest in missions or the welfare even of those within their own body, I would argue that it is impossible to have a church that is actually committed to sound doctrine that lacks these corollary interests. With respect to individual Christians in their common vocations, the mercies of God in Christ propel a profound sense of obligation and stewardship. God has given us everything in Christ, by grace alone, so our only “reasonable service” is to love and serve our neighbors out of gratitude for that inexhaustible gift.”

To avoid the pendulum-swing between extremes, the church must emphasize both creeds and also deeds, recognizing that Good News results in good deeds. Without that theological center, the church will be tempted to spin off into either deeds only or creeds only. God’s grace motivates repentance and change, and only by proclaiming God’s gracious, merciful response to our sin and failure will we find the fuel for loving and serving our neighbors in action and in truth.

The rise in awareness of oppression and concern for victims from the church should encourage us. Because of God’s lavish grace toward us through the work of Jesus, we are motivated to be agents of his grace to others, especially the vulnerable and oppressed. By responding to oppression and injustice, the church has the opportunity to be a light to the nations and to participate in God’s mission by welcoming the weak and powerless to find grace, mercy, and rest in Jesus Christ.

A Theology of the Last Supper

A Theology of the Last Supper

Maundy Thursday, which remembers the Last Supper, is a celebration of the new covenant.

In the same way also he took the cup, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

1 Corinthians 11:25–26

As we progress through Holy Week toward Easter Sunday, one of the traditional Christian feast days is “Maundy Thursday” (also known in various traditions as Holy Thursday, Covenant Thursday, or Thursday of Mysteries). Coming before Good Friday, this day commemorates the Last Supper of Jesus with his disciples before his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

Jesus’ Last Supper provides the basis for one of the most important observances of the Christian church: the Lord’s Supper, also known as Eucharist or Communion in different traditions. From the earliest days of the church, Christians have re-enacted the Lord’s Supper in accordance with Jesus’ instruction that his followers “do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19).

The New Covenant

The significance of the Last Supper is seen in the fact that it is when Jesus instituted the new covenant with God’s people, as he explained, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). The Mosaic covenant, which God had made with Israel, was constantly broken because of the sin of God’s people. In the Old Testament, God’s prophets declared that someday God would institute a new covenant with his people and put his law into their hearts: “For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more” (Jer. 31:31–34).

As he broke bread and passed around the Passover cup, Jesus was being very intentional. The broken bread foreshadowed his body being broken in death, and the cup foreshadowed the shedding of his blood and the absorbing of God’s wrath against sin.

Christ’s death is the basis for the redemption of all God’s people through the new covenant relationship with God that had been promised. The old Mosaic covenant was replaced with the new covenant through the work of Jesus in his life, death, and resurrection, which provided complete atonement for all the sins of God’s people: past, present, and future (Rom. 3:25–26; 2 Cor. 3:1–4:6; Heb. 8:6–13).

Past, Present, and Future

There are many differences in the way various Christian traditions understand and celebrate the Lord’s Supper, but at the core is a basic unity in celebrating God’s redemption in the past, the present, and the future. We see all three of these elements in the Apostle Paul’s explanation of the Lord’s Supper in 1 Corinthians 11:25–26.

 

The Past

As Jesus instructed, we take the Lord’s Supper “in remembrance” (Luke 22:19) of Jesus’ finished work of salvation through his life, death, and resurrection. The bread broken and the wine poured out serve as concrete, tangible reminders of Jesus’ real, physical life and sacrificial death, which occurred once-for-all in the past. As Hebrews says, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:10). The work of salvation is finished (John 19:30).

The Present

Yet when Christians celebrate the Lord’s Supper, it’s not only a way of remembering something past, but also proclaiming something that is present and looking forward to something that is future.

The Apostle Paul tells the Christians in Corinth that “as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:25–26, emphasis added). When Christians come together for the Lord’s Supper, we are celebrating and joyfully proclaiming the new covenant and the redemption through Jesus’ blood that is offered to all people. It proclaims the present power of the death of Christ and celebrates that we “who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Eph. 2:13). And as we eat and drink the elements Jesus said is his body and blood, we acknowledge our constant dependence on Jesus as the “bread of life” who came down from heaven (John 6:35–59).

 

A Future Hope

Finally, the Lord’s Supper looks forward to the future, because Jesus is coming again—“you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” As he gave his disciples the cup, he pointed them to his future return: “I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom” (Matt. 26:29). The book of Revelation portrays a great feast for “the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev. 19:6–10), which was anticipated in the prediction of a messianic banquet in Isaiah 25:6–8, Matthew 22:1–14, and Matthew 25:10. Jesus intentionally points his followers toward this future hope at the Last Supper.

When we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, we remember God’s work of redemption in the past, we proclaim his grace in the present, and we look forward to Jesus’ return in the future. It’s a joyful, thankful, hopeful celebration as we reflect on and experience God’s grace to us through Jesus.

Unity Around the Gospel: Machen on the Church

Unity Around the Gospel: Machen on the Church

This is the last installment in our seven-part series based on J. Gresham Machen’s seminal work, Christianity and Liberalism (1923). In the book, still relevant almost a century later, Machen contrasts the modernist theological liberalism of his day with biblical Christianity. This post covers the final chapter, in which Machen contrasts the incompatible visions for the church in Christianity and liberalism, and calls for the church of his day to re-orient itself on the gospel.

Machen argues that Christianity and liberalism are unified in concern for social institutions, but the greatest social institution is the church of redeemed men and women. Liberalism taught the doctrine of the universal brotherhood that unites people regardless of race and color, but neglected the biblical doctrine of an even closer brotherhood that unites those who have been born again in the church of Jesus Christ. The greater hope for society and the world is found in the church, because real transformation of society comes through the gospel message that the church treasures and spreads.

A False Unity

The problem that Machen saw within the visible church of his day was that both Christians and liberals were joined in a false unity. The church of his day allowed those who did not truly hold to a confession of faith to remain as full members. Not only were orthodox Christians and modern liberals considered members of the same church, but it was considered narrow-minded to try to divide the two camps. Those who held to central biblical doctrines like the cross of Christ and substitutionary atonement were viewed as conservatives fussing about unimportant doctrinal matters. The church climate of the time believed that liberals and conservatives should live together in unity and get on with Christian service.

If we really love our fellow-men we shall never be content with binding up their wounds or pouring on oil and wine or rendering them any such lesser service. We shall indeed do such things for them. But the main business of our lives will be to bring them to the Savior of their souls. (p. 158)

The Height of Dishonesty

Machen shows that to continue on in this kind of false unity is the height of dishonesty. The narrow person is the one “who rejects the other man’s convictions without first endeavoring to understand them” (p. 160). When New Testament Christians and modernist liberals understand one another, they will see that their beliefs are entirely different—one views the death of Christ as an unimportant doctrinal point, while the other believes it is the very heart of Christianity.

This kind of unity is dishonest, Machen argued, because many ministers in the church of his time were claiming to agree with confessions of faith that they in fact manifestly disagreed with. It is a bold-faced lie, Machen insisted, to be a minister of the church, which by its very nature is devoted to spreading the gospel message, and then oppose the very message one is committed to hold. Machen writes, “Nothing engenders strife so much as a forced unity, within the same organization, of those who disagree fundamentally in aim” (p. 141).

An Entirely Different Religion

Machen argues throughout his book that liberalism is an entirely different religion from Christianity. For the church to passively accept those who disagree with the biblical gospel and allow them to preach another gospel is to betray not only Christ, but all those who have gone before and funded church mission agencies that were supposedly committed to the spread of the gospel. Machen believed that the church could not just get on with “Christian” life and service while it tolerated false doctrine that detracted from the gospel message at the core of the church.

Shall we be satisfied with preachers who merely “do not deny” the Cross of Christ? . . . God send us ministers who, instead of merely avoiding denial of the Cross shall be on fire with the Cross, whose whole life shall be one burning sacrifice of gratitude to the blessed Savior who loved them and gave himself for them! (p. 148)

In light of this sad confusion of Christians and modern liberals in the church of Machen’s time, he called leaders in the church to continue not only to preach the gospel, but also to defend the faith, to carefully consider the qualifications of potential leaders, to encourage local congregations to find pastors who were passionate about the cross of Christ, and, most importantly, to promote the study of Christian doctrine.

A Concerned but Confident Conclusion

Though Machen was deeply concerned about the widespread influence of modern liberalism throughout the church in the world, he concludes Christianity and Liberalism on hopeful note, confident that God will revive the church again and bring reformation.

This is the final post in the series on J. Gresham Machen’s classic Christianity and Liberalism.

Jesus’ Church Is Here To Stay

Jesus’ Church Is Here To Stay

The most famous and influential creed in the history of the Christian faith, the Nicene Creed, contains a line that modern Christians sometimes misunderstand: “I believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.” The word “catholic” can be a source of confusion for those who think it is referring to the Roman Catholic Church, but actually the word simply means “universal.” This points to the important theological concept of the “universal church.”

THE CHURCH UNIVERSAL

The term commonly used for the church in the New Testament is the Greek word ekklesia. Jesus is the first to use the word ekklesia in the New Testament (Matt. 16:18), but it is used in various ways with various meanings. As theologian Louis Berkhof explainsekklesia can have the following meanings:

John Calvin explains the last two definitions in his treatment of the visible and invisible church. The “visible church” describes the Christianity that can be measured and counted externally:

The whole body . . . scattered throughout the world, who profess to worship one God and Christ, who by baptism are initiated into the faith; by partaking of the Lord’s Supper profess unity in true doctrine and charity, agree in holding the word of the Lord, and observe the ministry which Christ has appointed for the preaching of it.

However, Calvin recognized that not all who profess to be Christians and outwardly take part in church practices are truly united to Christ. Only God, who knows the hearts of all people, knows the exact membership of the invisible church:

The Church as it really is before God—the Church into which none are admitted but those who by the gift of adoption are sons of God, and by the sanctification of the Spirit true members of Christ. In this case it not only comprehends the saints who dwell on the earth, but all the elect who have existed from the beginning of the world.

BELONGING TO THE LORD

The English word “church” come from the Greek kuriake, which means “belonging to the Lord,” emphasizing that the true church is the people who belong to the Lord. This is simply another way of expressing the biblical truth that the church throughout the world is Christ’s “body” (1 Cor. 12). As Christians, we are not simply individuals; we are part of something much greater than ourselves.

JESUS BUILDS HIS CHURCH

The concept of the universal church is important for Christians to grasp as we trust Christ and look to the future. Movements will rise and fall, and individual churches will come and go, but God’s people—the church universal—will never be destroyed. Why? Because Jesus builds his church, and Jesus will not fail.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus tells Peter, “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.” These are the first words out of Jesus’ mouth in response to Peter’s powerful declaration that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Beginning with “and I tell you” gives a hint that what Jesus is about to say is very important: he is explaining the significance of him being the Christ. Jesus announces that, as the Christ, his intention and task is to build his church. And Jesus makes it personal with the first person pronouns: “I will build my church.”

WEAKNESS AND FRAILTY

Jesus’ promise to build his church should give us hope and certainty that God’s purposes for his church will ultimately succeed, but it should not make us arrogant about our own abilities. God loves to use the weak and frail people of the world to shame the strong and powerful (1 Cor. 1:27–29). By paradoxically exalting the low and helpless, God shows that heis the strong and powerful one whose purposes cannot fail. This means that Jesus’ church will be built up not with outward, human strength, but rather in weakness and frailty dependent on the power of God’s Spirit to advance his kingdom and bring glory to Jesus.

Jesus’ very personal promise to build his church also reveals that there will be cosmic conflict involved—“the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the church Jesus is building.

The gates of hell convey the idea of the organized authority of the kingdom of darkness in a calculated, organized strategy again Jesus, his gospel, his kingdom, and his church. The demonic forces engaged in conflict with Jesus before he built his church, and they will continue to attack his church.

JESUS WILL NOT FAIL

This theme of cosmic conflict in Matthew 16:18 sets the existence of the church within the context of the ultimate conflict in Scripture, running from Genesis 3:15 to Revelation 20. The conflict in Genesis 3:15 is a divinely inaugurated hostility, which is a promise of conflict and redemption, but also victory. From the beginning to the end of the Bible, the work of God in the building of the church is set in a conflict that will be won by God in the end (Rev. 20). As Edmund Clowney writes,

This fallen, broken world is now Christ’s world. It is the theatre of his redemption (1 Cor. 4:9; Rev. 5), the place of his mission, over which he has total authority for the accomplishment of his saving work (Matt. 13:38; 28:18–20; John 8:12; 17:15–18). The rule of Christ will bring this present world to the glory of the world to come (1 Cor. 15:22–26; Rom. 8:19–20; Acts 3:20–21; Rev. 21:1). He will come again in glory to judge the nations and form a new universe (Matt. 24:14; Acts 1:11; Rom. 16:26; 2 Thess. 1:7–10; 2 Pet. 3:10).

God has always built a place for his own dwelling: Moses built the tabernacle, Solomon built the temple, and Jesus is Immanuel (“God with us”), but he doesn’t stop there as he builds his church. The church is his, and he has committed to build it, despite all the strategies of the enemy.

Jesus is the great church builder, and he will not fail.

God Is The Great Church Builder

God Is The Great Church Builder

“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.” – Matthew 16:18

When reading this passage, most people focus on figuring out who or what the “rock” is upon which Jesus builds his church. The options are: Peter, Peter’s confession (Matt. 16:16), Jesus, or the apostles.

This is important, but there is so much more happening in this verse. Keep in mind that these are the first words out of Jesus’ mouth in response to Peter’s powerful declaration that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

IT’S PERSONAL

Beginning with “and I tell you” gives a hint that what Jesus is about to say is very important: he is explaining the significance of him being the Christ. Jesus announces that, as the Christ, his intention and task is to build his church. And Jesus makes it personal with the first person pronouns: “I will build my church.”

This very personal pronouncement also reveals that there will be cosmic conflict involved —“the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the church Jesus is building.

FIGHTING WORDS

“The gates of hell” is a poetic expression for death and especially martyrdom (Job 38:17Psalm 9:13). The “gates” are the aggressor and are offset against the gates of the daughter of Zion (Psalm 9:14Psalm 87:2). It contrasts the conflict between the kingdom of God, represented by Zion, and its opposite, the kingdom of darkness.

The gates of a city in the Old Testament were not just the entrance point—they were a place where the strategy of the city itself was determined (see Ruth 4:12 Sam. 15:22 Sam. 18:42433; and Psalm 127:5). The gates of hell convey the idea of the organized authority of the kingdom of darkness in an organized strategy again Jesus, his gospel, his kingdom, and his church. The demonic forces engaged in conflict with Jesus before he built his church, and they will continue to attack his church.

In addition to seeing Jesus as prophet, priest, and king, we must also see his central role as the great church builder.

In this cosmic conflict there is not a specific geographical location, as we see in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that the church’s primary position is “in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3202:6). Paul tells us the conflict takes place in the heavenly realm (Eph. 3:206:12).

This theme of cosmic conflict in Matthew 16:18 sets the existence of the church within the context of the ultimate conflict in Scripture, running from Genesis 3:15 to Revelation 20. The conflict in Genesis 3:15 is a divinely inaugurated hostility, which is a promise of conflict and redemption, but also victory. From the beginning to the end of the Bible, the work of God in the building of the church is set in a conflict that will be won by God in the end (Rev. 20).

THE GREAT CHURCH BUILDER

God has always built a place for his own dwelling: Moses built the tabernacle, Solomon built the temple, and Jesus is Immanuel (“God with us”) but doesn’t stop there as he builds his church.

All of this reminds us of an aspect of Christology that we forget too much. In addition to seeing Jesus as prophet, priest, and king, we must also see his central role as the great church builder.

The church is his church and he has committed to build it, despite all the strategies of the enemy. Jesus is the great church builder, and he will not fail.