We have before us this morning one of the most consequential texts in the New Testament. It is important on many levels. It marks a turning point in the Lord’s earthly ministry and it marks a turning point in the understanding and conviction of his disciples. It sets the stage in a very forthright way for the apostolic ministry that will follow the Lord’s ascension to heaven. It links that ministry, with all of its ups and downs, with all of its now 2,000 years of progress in the world, with the promise of eventual triumph. It presents to us, really for the first time, the New Testament church as an institution of power and authority in the world. It is, of course, a controversial text, not least for the use that Roman Catholics make of it as the principal New Testament basis for their doctrine of the papacy.
So far in this Gospel, Matthew himself has demonstrated his own conviction that Jesus is the Messiah; the Son of God. He has recorded authoritative statements to that effect by God himself (3:17) and by the evil spirits (8:29). He has, of course, presented the deeds and the teaching of the Lord Jesus as demonstrating beyond question the messianic credentials of Jesus of Nazareth. We have seen the crowds amazed at the authority of his teaching and the stupendous power of his miracles. The question is always near the surface: precisely who and what is this Jesus of Nazareth? The crowds remain in a state of fevered uncertainty and, as we will see, to keep them there was a deliberate strategy on the Lord’s part. But what of his own disciples? Do they understand? Up to this point, there has been no unmistakable and straightforward declaration as to Jesus’ identity by one of the Lord’s own disciples.
v.13 For this important conversation the Lord has taken his disciples away from Galilee, away from the crowds, up near the headwaters of the Jordan River. Jesus begins the conversation by asking the disciples what the crowds say about him? Who is the Son of Man? We said before that “Son of Man” seems to have been the Lord’s preferred way of referring to himself precisely because the term was not in use as a messianic title in first century Judaism. As such it did not carry with it all the misunderstandings of the Messiah and his office that were then current in Jewish thinking. Though “son of man” was a messianic title,” coming as it does from Daniel 7, for first century Jews it was a blank slate on which the Lord could write what he wished. He didn’t have to explain what the term did not mean before he would explain what it did. [Cf. Vos, Self-Disclosure of Jesus, 253-254; Reymond, Jesus, 52-67]
v.14 The fact that the crowds are proposing that Jesus was one of the great prophets come back from the dead indicates the extraordinary impact he had made on people. They were in no doubt that he was no ordinary man and that his ministry was like that of the great prophets before him. They recognized the supernatural when they saw it.
v.15 Now Jesus sharpens the point of his question: who do you, my own disciples, think that I am?
v.16 For all their failures of faith and understanding, the disciples were, by this time, far beyond the crowds in their understanding and estimation of Jesus. He is the “Christ,” that is, the Messiah. Christ is simply the Greek word that means the same thing as Messiah, viz. “anointed one.” At the time, speaking Aramaic as they would have been, Peter would have said, “You are the Messiah.” But Matthew is writing in Greek and “Messiah” is not a Greek word. While Matthew, as the narrator, has used the term before this, this is the first instance of the term in Matthew’s Gospel on the lips of a speaker. Peter goes on to say that Jesus is “the Son of the Living God.” Precisely what he understood by that confession at that moment is hard to say, but he is surely saying at the very least that Jesus had a very special relationship to God.
v.17 This strongly predestinarian statement, that Peter owes his understanding to the working of God in his heart, is like many others that we find in the Gospels and in the Gospel of Matthew itself (e.g. 11:25-26). In modern parlance we would say that Matthew and the other Gospel writers were “Calvinists!”
Some of you may do as I do and take note of texts that were used by the Spirit of God to bring different prominent believers to faith in Christ. It was hearing Ephesians 2:8-9 read that made J.C. Ryle a Christian. It was reading in a paroxysm of doubt and guilty fear, Rom. 3:25 that made William Cowper a Christian. It was hearing an unlearned lay minister read and repeat over and over Isa. 45:22 that made the young Charles Spurgeon a Christian, and so on. Well it was preaching on this text, “Who do men say that I am?” that made the 19th century Anglican priest, William Haslam, a Christian. He was explaining to his congregation the different views of Jesus entertained by the Jewish crowds and then what Peter meant by his confession and he realized as he preached his sermon that he really had himself never believed that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of God. And as he spoke his heart was warmed and flooded with a new and living faith in Christ. He was ever thereafter known as the parson converted by his own sermon. As with Peter, flesh and blood did not reveal that to him, but the Father in heaven.
v.18 As Peter has accurately stated Jesus’ true significance, now Jesus declares where Peter will fit in the plan and purpose of God. “Peter” is apparently a name that Jesus gave to Simon, not a second name he already had. He is also known as “Cephas” in the New Testament, which is the Aramaic term for “rock” as “Peter” is the Greek term for “rock.” Jesus, of course, would have said “Cephas”. He is called “rock” not because of his character, his firmness or resolution, for he would often display the opposite; but for his purpose in Christ’s scheme for his church and kingdom. Peter, as a rock, would be the foundation of that church.
Protestants, in reacting to Roman Catholic attempts to derive from this statement the teaching that Peter was the first pope, have often tried to get round the plain meaning of the words and argue that the “rock” was Christ himself, or Peter’s confession of Christ, or the faith that produced his confession. Clearly Jesus means Peter the man, but, as clearly, Peter primus inter pares, first among equals. Peter speaks so Jesus replies to him, but he is speaking for the rest. What is said here is said elsewhere in the NT, after all, of all the apostles. Paul will later say that the church was built on the foundation of the apostles and the prophets. Indeed, in Rev. 21:14 the names of the 12 apostles appear on the twelve foundation stones of the heavenly city of God! That is the idea here as well. Christ is the architect and the builder – “I will build…” – and Peter and the apostles are the foundation. In other words, the true Christian faith and the true Christian church is that faith and that church that is built upon and derives from apostolic Christianity, the New Testament, and the faith once and for all delivered to the saints by the apostles. This text has nothing whatsoever to do with “popes.”
“The gates of Hades” is another way of saying “the gates of death.” To say that the gates of Hades will not overcome the church is to say that it will never die; it will live forever.
v.19 This remarkable statement concerns the church’s authority to exercise the Lord’s authority in the world. Having the “keys” was a sign of authority entrusted to a steward or a porter by the owner of the palace or great house. You have authority to run the house, in other words, if you hold the keys. “Binding and loosing” was a Jewish way of speaking of forbidding and permitting. The rabbis used this same way of speaking. While it may refer to more than this – for example, to authoritative declarations such as were made in apostolic Christianity concerning true and false understandings of the faith and declarations of the right way of life (think, for example of the Jerusalem Synod in Acts 15) – there is here, rather clearly, the thought of opening the door to let someone in or locking the door to keep someone out, which understanding is confirmed by the Lord’s use of the same figure of speech in 18:18. The church, exercising its Christ given authority, will determine who belongs and who does not to the people of God. The idea is not that the apostles will be determining the policies of heaven, but that they will be carrying out heaven’s will. All of that is actually clearer in Matthew’s Greek than in the NIV’s English.
v.20 We have encountered already on several occasions what has long been called the “messianic secret.” Christ did not advertise his messiahship to the crowds partly because they would misunderstand what it meant and attribute to him purposes and intentions he did not have – so complete was the common misunderstanding among the Jews as to what the Messiah would be and do – and partly because the public declaration of his being the Messiah would certainly have provoked a crisis with the religious authorities and it was not yet the time for that.
There are many ways to take our text, as you can see; many subjects to consider from it. But I want to consider this morning the great statement the Lord makes concerning the indestructible character of his church and kingdom in the world. “The gates of Hades,” or “The Gates of Death” will not overcome it.
Think of the situation when Jesus uttered those words. He had a small company of followers. He had excited the crowds to no end, to be sure, but the powerful people were opposed to him and their opposition was hardening. The disciples might well have taken his words in stride. After all, they were by this time fully expecting that Jesus would go from triumph to triumph. As we read in the next paragraph, however, when Jesus began to make clear to his disciples that what awaited him was not glorious triumph but suffering and death, they not only did not understand him, they took it upon themselves to rebuke him for his pessimism and his defeatist spirit. “I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” It sounded plausible enough when he was working miracles to the amazement of great crowds of people, but the day was coming when he would finally find himself utterly alone, deserted even by his closest disciples.
And, then, after his resurrection and after the descent of the Holy Spirit, the promise he made here, the assurance he gave here of the church’s deathless life seemed entirely plausible again. Large numbers of Jews flooded into the church, lives were transformed in the most remarkable and wonderful ways and so it continued as the gospel made its way out into the Gentile world and Christian churches were formed in all the great cities of the Roman world and the message of Christ went east and west.
But opposition surfaced as well, sometimes fierce opposition and the church’s life in the world became and remained difficult, even dangerous. The gospel had reached China by the 7th century, but eventually it was banned by the emperor and by the 10th century no Christians remained. [K.S. Latourette, Christianity in a Revolutionary Age, vol. iii, 433] And it was so in other places. The gospel advanced, the church was formed, but eventually disappeared.
Even in areas of the Christian church’s greatest strength, the fortunes of the church waxed and waned. She gained first a foothold in Europe and then great power, but to a great degree lost her soul in the Middle Ages, got it back in the Reformation, began to lose it again in the 18th century Enlightenment and, today, Europe, once the principal bastion of the Christian faith in the world, has become once again a mission field.
In other words, the Lord was right on both counts: 1) the gates of Hades would constantly threaten the church of Jesus Christ; and 2) they would not overcome it. Here we are, these 2,000 years later and, though beset and oppressed on every hand in many places, the church maintains her life, her witness, her divine character in the world.
As Theodore Beza remarked to the King of France,
“Sire, it belongs to the church of God, in the name of which I
speak, to receive blows and to give them, but it will please your
majesty to take notice that it is an anvil which has worn out
G.K. Chesterton put the same point in a more homely way when he said, “Five times the church has gone to the dogs and each time it was the dog that died.”
There have been many who have predicted the death of the Christian church and the Christian faith only to be disappointed in their hope. Voltaire predicted in the 18th century that in a hundred years the Bible would be a forgotten book. One of his homes today belongs to the French Bible Society. As late as 1822, Thomas Jefferson did not hesitate to predict that in his American republic every young man then alive would die a Unitarian. [Allen Guelzo, Abraham Lincoln, 12] But today, political pundits who share Jefferson’s outlook, wring their hands over the political muscle that evangelicals wielded in the recent election.
It is a simple fact that it is easier to believe in the immortality of the gospel and the Christian church today than it has ever been. We have all of this history to review, all of these times and all of these circumstances that augured so poorly for the advancement of the gospel and the survival of the church, yet here she remains, 2000 years later, stronger in some ways than she has ever been before. There were no Christians in China for a long time after the church was extinguished in the 10th century, but there are millions upon millions of them there today.
Jesus clearly did not say that the church’s progress would be effortless or that it would not have to surmount great opposition. He spoke of the gates of Hades indeed. He did not promise that the life of the church in a particular area would not be extinguished. The churches of Asia Minor that Paul either founded or served in some way – Ephesus, Colosse, the churches of Galatia, and the like – and to which he wrote some of his great letters, have not existed for many centuries and those same towns once inhabited by many Christians are now part of Muslim Turkey. But as often as the church has weakened or even disappeared in one place, it has sprung to life in another. What a remarkable thing we heard a few weeks ago about Nepal. A country whose Christians were numbered in the single digits fifty years ago – four or five known believers – now, a generation later, has upwards of 400,000 Christians, obviously almost all first generation, and they’re devout and earnest missionary Christians. They are sharing their faith all the time and many are continuing to be converted. Nepalese Christians have faced systematic persecution in that officially Hindu country and yet the church has mushroomed. Katmandu has hundreds of Christian churches, both large and small, and churches can be found now in all parts of the country. And many of these Christians are the indirect fruit of gospel work carried on among Nepalese years ago by the Christian church in India.
Flesh and blood did not reveal the way of life to these mountain people, but the Father in heaven. If the Father chooses to open a man or woman’s mind or heart to the truth, it will be opened! Even in the almost inaccessible towns and villages that dot the roof of the world. Eternity will remember this evangelism and these conversions in Nepal as one of the greatest and momentous stories of the second half of the 20th century. For it is the story of the Lord Christ building his church.
And that same story can be told over and over again. One of our privileges as a congregation is to share in the gospel and church-building ministries of many Christian workers around the world, Americans and nationals alike. We have, as a congregation, helped support financially the establishment of three separate congregations and the building of their sanctuaries in villages in the hills of Manipur state in NE India. We have heard from the Pritzlaffs of the remarkable birth of the Christian church in Kazakhstan, numbering after some 15 years of gospel work between 10 and 20 thousand souls. We know of Gerry Gutierrez’ work building congregations in the mountains of Peru. After a few years’ work, more than 1,200 came to a celebratory service recently.
Christianity may be in decline in the West, though there is still a very large and influential Christian church in Europe and North America, but it is very much in the ascendant in other parts of the world. Indeed, in 1900 75% of Christians were white and western. In 2000 75% of Christians were non-white and non-western. And if we ask why? We have the Lord’s answer here. He implies here, what he says explicitly many times, that the church will suffer intense opposition in this world, the Devil will see to that. But he promises that the gates of Hades will not overcome the church and, in all these years, they have not. It is perfectly obvious that they never will. And why is that?
Because God the father holds within his hand the power over every human heart. He can make the most intransigent unbeliever a willing follower of Jesus Christ. He can make a man or a woman, who had no idea whatsoever as to who Jesus is or who had all sorts of absurdly false notions concerning him, as did so many in his own day, in a single moment of blinding realization come face to face with Jesus Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God. And it is because the Lord Christ is the builder of his church. When he wishes to send his church forward in a time and place, it marches with power. If it is his pleasure to allow his church to languish, to punish his people for their unfaithfulness or to punish a part of the world for its sinfulness by withholding the light of the gospel, then that is what will happen.
But when he is ready to build he can find workers anywhere, and will appoint them as he wishes, just as he found some fishermen in Galilee and used them to turn the world upside down. Peter and the 12 were the foundation of the church in a unique way, a once-and-for-all way, to be sure. But, in a lesser way, multitudes of men and women have served the same purpose and fulfilled the same role.
Three decades ago, in the early 1970s, two Nepali Christians, both recent converts, Robert Karthak and Laxmi Prasad Neupane, climbed the Himalayan Mountains, crossed rivers, and walked 15 miles a day to visit inaccessible villages across that nation of 23 million people. Just a little while before these men had not so much as even thought of Jesus Christ. And then, by the grace of God they discovered he was the Christ, the Son of the living God. Now the love of Christ was in their hearts and a desire to see the church built in their homeland. Each time they stumbled across a village, they stopped to sing a few songs, share their testimony, and hand out gospel tracts to those who could read. They journeyed for 45 days, sleeping under the stars and wearing out five pairs of shoes, ever aware that they could be arrested by the police and jailed on charges of breaking the law and proselytizing. It is a story straight out of the book of Acts.
It was not until years had passed that Karthak and Neupane began to meet new Christians from some of the villages they had visited. “No one remembered us,” says Neupane, an upper-caste Brahmin Hindu convert and now director of the International Bible Society in Nepal. “We did our work secretly as we could be arrested at any time, and prayed that God would pour out his Spirit. We are now seeing the fruit of the seeds which we sowed many years ago. God’s Word never returns void.” [Anil Stephen, “The Church at the Top of the World,” Christianity Today (from the website)] Are not those two men – new Christians themselves, men who had discovered by the grace of God and the illumination of God’s Spirit that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the Living God – I say, are not these two men rocks on which the church in Nepal was built? And are they not proof for the umpteenth time that Christ will build his church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it? Robert Karthak is now the pastor of a large church in Katmandu, and Laxmi Neupane the head of the Nepal Bible Society. From Nepal in those days, they were as unlikely to become Christians as any people in the world! But what does that matter when God the Father chooses to reveal Christ his Son to a human mind and heart?
What did Voltaire or Thomas Jefferson know? They could not imagine a thriving church continuing in the modern world because they still thought of Jesus in the same confused and faulty way so many thought of him in his own day. But let it be discovered that he is the Christ, the one sent from heaven to save the world, that he is the Son of the Living God, and the notion that the church may not survive, that it may disappear from the world, becomes simply preposterous.
We American Christians think far too much about our own personal peace and affluence, about the happiness of our lives and the measure of God’s blessing we seem to be enjoying at any time. We do not think rightly about the world or our place in it, unless we are alert to these greater interests of the Lord Christ and the promise he made to secure those interests in the world until he comes again. When the end comes – the end of our lives or the end of the age – how we felt about ourselves or to what degree we were happy about our situation at some particular moment – will seem utterly inconsequential. How the church was faring in the world, whether we were at work on behalf of Christ’s cause and program in the world, whether we were following in the apostles’ train, confessing Christ’s name and widening the boundaries of his kingdom, whether we were the foundation upon which Christ built something in his church, that is what will matter. It is always that that comes first. What this world is about is the deathless advance of the kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. What our lives should be about is the same thing, nothing more, nothing less. When our lives are over in this world or when he comes again, I tell you as your minister in Jesus’ name, you will want it to have been so, clearly, unmistakably so.
This statement, this promise of the Lord that he will build his church cause all of us to redouble our commitment to tell others that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God.