The Church’s Builder The Life of the Church Series: Sermon One
Read Matthew 16:13-28.
A couple of months ago, over a meal with another minister, my friend leaned over the table and said with a penetrating gaze, “And what will your strategy be in Columbia (South Carolina)?” Most of us go through life with bubbles above our heads full of unspoken thoughts; the bubble above my head at that point read, “That strikes me as being a question only an American would ask!” But it did cause me to reflect on another question: What is the strategy of our Lord Jesus Christ in Columbia? – an almost infinitely more important question.
And while the answer to that question takes a particular shape with every group of the Lord’s people in every particular place where they are set down at every point in time where they are gathered, there is bound to be a sense in which, if we ask the Lord Jesus, “What is your strategy among us in Columbia?” He would surely give exactly the same answer that He gave to the questioning Simon Peter, [who asked] “What is your strategy going to be now that I have confessed you a Saviour and Lord?” I want us in these few minutes to reflect on what our Lord’s answer to that question is in Matthew 16, and remains here in the 21st century.
Jesus’ Vision for the Church
I want you to notice first of all in this connection that the very heart of Jesus’ strategy is His vision for the Church. Actually, the word "church" appears in only two separate passages in all of the Gospels: Here in Matthew 16, and later on in Matthew 18. But where it occurs in our Lord’s teaching and where it occurs in the rest of the New Testament (as it does frequently), it almost always has its background in the great events that took place at the time of the Exodus, when God quite literally called His people out of Egyptian darkness into His marvellous light. And in doing so, God first of all called them out of Egypt, and then called them together at Mount Sinai to worship Him and to serve Him. And indeed, the very word that is used so often in the New Testament for the church – "ecclesia" – means quite literally “the called out ones.”
And it often carries with it in the New Testament this sense that we are not just called out of the world, but we are called together to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in the world. That is to say that even as we live in the world, we live as those who seem to belong in some sense to another world altogether. And in a very interesting way, in our crumbling society – where families crumble, where nations crumble, where organisations crumble – Jesus Christ’s strategy is to build a new community in the midst of the darkness and the crumbling world that will make men and women around us ask the important question, “Where in the name of heaven did that community of people come from?” And even as they ask the question, they become somewhat conscious that there is no earthly power that could have brought these particular people together in this particular place at this particular time to serve and worship and praise and honour the Lord Jesus Christ.
In marked contrast to what the Christian church in the West so often in the last century has sadly seen as its great goal – to show the world that we are not really any different from the world – Jesus’ great calling to us is that as we are bound together by faith in Him, He makes us living stones in His temple, and chips away at the edges that keep us separated from one another, and so brings us together as such a diversity of people, that come to love one another because we have come to trust and to love Him.
But as was true in the early centuries of the Christian church, so will be true in our own place, in our own time, in our own congregation: men and women and boys and girls will ask the question, “Where did this third race of man come from?” For all we lament the crumbling society and the crumbling family life around us, what a glorious time this is to serve the Lord Jesus Christ as His fellowship and as His church! To be part of His vision to build the Church here, so that His power and presence is among us, men and women and boys and girls will be drawn by the magnetism of His supernatural grace, and the Church of Jesus Christ will be here as the heart of His strategy.
Jesus Building His Church
But then I want you to notice that these great words of Jesus speak not only of the heart of His strategy, but also of the way in which He implements His strategy. He does so by building the church. We see a marvellous illustration of this in the life of one particular man – Simon Peter – brought now by the Father to see who Jesus really is and to trust Him in all the grandeur of His ministry of the grace of His person. Although he does not yet fully understand the significance of what it means to say that Jesus Christ is Saviour and Lord, he has been brought to faith in Christ.
And it is in this way that the Lord builds His Church: by bringing us to faith, by bringing our family to faith, by bringing our children to faith, by bringing our grandchildren to faith, and perhaps most obviously through that gracious covenant work of bringing others to faith from outside of our fellowship and from outside of the covenant community. Men and women, who today live in darkness, discover the presence of Christ radiating among His people and themselves are built into the fellowship of God’s people.
“And so,” says our Lord Jesus to Peter, “Not only are you blessed because you are now a living stone built into the church, but you are also a rock on which I am going to further build my church.” So He speaks to Peter not only about the way in which Peter has been called into the fellowship of God’s people, but how Peter will extend the fellowship of God’s people. He gives to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven. What Peter opens by these keys will be opened and what Peter shuts by these keys will be shut! What is our Lord Jesus talking about? Well, we just need to read the rest of the New Testament to see what He is talking about. Especially to remember how, for the very first time in his life, Simon Peter on the day of Pentecost tried to put the keys into the door. And to his astonishment, as he taught the gospel to these thousands on the day of Pentecost, the door was flung wide open! And to his absolute amazement, thousands of them on one afternoon poured into the kingdom of heaven and were added to the Church of Jesus Christ.
It is as though the Lord wanted right at the beginning to paint for us a picture so great and so dramatic that we would have the courage of faith to believe what He did through this stone. [We might think,] “Did He call this man a rock? This man a rock?” Dare Jesus call you a rock and a stone in His Church? You, and all your frailty, and all your fumbling attempts to witness to His grace and glory and to try to explain to men and women and boys and girls in our schools who sit in darkness what Jesus Christ has done for us and what He means to us? He places also in our hands, in a sense, the keys that open the kingdom of heaven to those who are being brought to faith in Jesus Christ. This is the way in which He builds His Church!
Now my friends, it is always in evangelical and conservative churches one of the great blessings we enjoy that we see entire family lines brought into the fellowship of believing in Jesus Christ. But do you know what sometimes brings a fellowship onto an altogether different level? It is when somebody who has not had those privileges sees the power of Christ among His people and is drawn to faith. And that is what Jesus is speaking about here. He is speaking about building the Church until the glory of God bursts out of the building, and men and women and boys and girls begin to sense that God is among His people, and are drawn to seek Him and to find Him, by God’s grace, for themselves.
The absolute heart of Jesus’ strategy is His vision for the Church. The way in which He implements it is by building it stone by stone, and bringing other stones into the building through the witness of those who are already living stones.
Opposition to the Building of the Church
Jesus, in the third place, hints to us that wherever these two things are true – that His vision for the church is being implemented in the building of the church – then following the heart of His vision and the implementation of His strategy there will almost inevitably be opposition to it. He speaks about the opposition here: “the gates of hell will not be able to prevail” against the building of the Church.
He uses the language "the gates" probably because in those days the gates of a city were the place where strategies were worked out, where council was taken, and where plans were made. He is saying to Peter and the others (and it is so vividly illustrated in Peter himself) that wherever the kingdom of Jesus Christ advances, it is almost inevitable that there will be opposition to it, for the very reason that Jesus is building His Church on enemy occupied territory!
Our choice [might] be, “Lord Jesus, if you come and bless a Christian fellowship, it will be glorious plain sailing from then on!” Some of us sometimes say, “Oh, if we could just get back to the New Testament Church!” And then we actually read about the New Testament Church, and we see that wherever there was advance there was opposition. Sometimes it was social ostrasizing (“Don’t you speak about Jesus here”). Sometimes it was political persecution. Other times it was actually pride and self-seeking that arose, sadly, even among the members. But while with all our hearts we all want to say to the Lord, “Lord, make it plain sailing from now on,” our Lord Jesus had to say even to one of His dearest disciples, “Peter, there is going to be opposition outside, and dear Peter, there is still opposition in your own heart. Because if I am going to build my Church, I am going to build my Church on those who will take up the cross and follow me.”
And we need to understand this. One of the amazing things we see in the Third World is that so often Jesus Christ has built His Church in the face of intense hostility. There are men and women being willing to bear the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. So the heart of His strategy is His vision for the Church. The implementation of that strategy takes place as He builds it. There is opposition to that strategy that is organized at the gates of hell.
The Triumph of the Church
But fourthly, there is the triumph of His strategy. “I will build my church,” and the gates of hell will not be able to shout down the Church-creating command of the Lord Jesus Christ! Isn’t that something? No matter what man may do, no matter what powers of darkness may do, Jesus Christ is committed to this great vision, and He will build His church. And the great question is: Will I, will you, and will we together be prepared to be rocks and stones that are part of that great Church building plan?
There is a mythical story (and I underline that it is mythical) that when our Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, one of the angels, seeing what He had left behind, said to Him, “Master, what is your strategy?” And the Lord Jesus pointed to this motley collection of eleven apostles left, their friends amounting on the day of Pentecost to about 120, and He said, “There is my strategy!” And the angel turned to Him with a look of horror on his face and said, “Lord Jesus, what is your second strategy?” And the Lord Jesus said, “There is no second strategy. I, even with these” (even with us!) “will build my Church.” Even here in Columbia.
I hope as the choir was singing the anthem this morning you thought, “What on earth are they doing singing Mathew 16:18-19 and Song of Solomon 2:11-13?” But did you see the connection? The connection is that Jesus is going to build His church – that is His promise. And these verses from Song of Solomon are the lover saying about her beloved that her beloved has come and said, “It is springtime, my love.” There is singing and joy, and a new season begun. And the message is really this: Jesus has promised to build His Church, but does the Church answer in response, “Lord Jesus, make it springtime among us, that new life may burst forth and a new sense of your glory and majesty be seen among us in this spiritual spring”?
He will build His church. The very question for us all – those who have been set apart as leaders among us and all of us as a fellowship – is whether we are willing to be built together into a kind of community about which our Lord Jesus Christ says, “I have no other strategy and I need no other strategy than building and building and building my Church.” May we catch glimpses of that in this freshly dawned year, that it may be springtime in our hearts individually, and in God’s grace, a time when we grow together as His Church.