The text we are about to read describes a hugely important moment in the ministry of the Lord Jesus and it is a pivotal text for the entire New Testament. But this morning I’m interested in a single statement the Lord made on this occasion; the rest I will have largely to ignore.
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 the Hebrew or Aramaic word 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. 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 was surely saying at the very least that Jesus had a very special, a remarkable relationship to God.
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 in Peter’s heart that produced his confession. Clearly Jesus meant Peter the man, but Peter primus inter pares, first among equals. Peter spoke for the rest of the group and the Lord replied to him, but what he said applied not simply to Peter, but to the apostles as a group. 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, derives its life from and remains loyal to that foundation laid down in the New Testament by the apostles themselves. This text has nothing whatsoever to do with “popes.” But it has everything to do with precisely what is the true nature of the church of God!
“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.
Only rarely do I respond to current events with a Sunday sermon. I did so many years ago for the first time when, as a perhaps a few of you will remember, a national event was created out of the showing of a television movie, The Day After, in which the United States was subjected to nuclear attack; I did soagain when Assisted Suicide was placed on the ballot in Washington State, did so when the first Iraq war began, and again after the attack on 9/11. Not often but from time to time. But it seemed right to me that I should respond to the Supreme Court decision of ten days ago legalizing same-sex marriage. There can be little question that this represents a turning point in American history and in the relationship between the believingchurch and the government of the United States. It seemed to me all the more appropriate to respond to this development in American life when the fourth of July was just yesterday, the time, if there continues to be a time, when any significant of Americans reflect on the history of our country or the fundamental principles of our politics.
In one way, of course, it is phenomenal how quickly this development overtook us. At the outset of the sexual revolution no one was proposing, few imagined, and virtually every advocate of that revolution would have hotly denied that in a generation men would be marrying men and women marrying women or that Americans would be free to pick their gender! On the other hand, no thoughtful observer of American life and, in particular, of our elite culture, the people who shape policy in the country, can be terribly surprised that we have reached this point.
One thing admitted on every side is that what made gay marriage possible, first as an idea and then as a political freedom, was the wholesale reconstruction, we would say deconstruction, of marriage that has taken place over the past generation. Marriage as it has been historically, we would say, intrinsically, understood – not just in America, not just in the Western world, indeed, but everywhere in the world going back to the beginning of human history – I say, that marriage has not been the law of our land for a generation. What we have called “marriage” in America for some years now is not marriage as it has always and everywhere been understood to be. Our laws have made of marriage more of what the ancients called “concubinage,” a legal relationship between a man and a woman, but one that does not create and does not constitute a family. What once made marriage marriage, in the United States and, still today, in the vast majority of the nations of the world is that it creates a family, a permanent, indissoluble organism, arising out of the union of two people, a man and a woman, who do not belong to the same family. Marriage has always been the engine of human society because it creates the most fundamental and essential relationship of human society, a family. But, as I say, as a legal idea, we haven’t had that marriage in the United States for a long time. No fault divorce was the acid that ate the heart out of American marriage. And the argument, hard to counter in a culture that has become so used to marriage as a disposable legal contract, is that anyone should be free to enter into any legal contract he or she wishes to, all the more when that contract need not have any lasting consequences. If marriage is only partnership, if it is only friends agreeing to a certain level of legal obligation, what is the big deal?
And, of course, there have been other cultural developments that, looking back, have made this revolution inevitable. The mainstreaming of promiscuity, ubiquitous pornography, the therapeutic culture, its concentration on everyone’s feelings of well-being about himself or herself, the intellectual conformity of the American university, and so on have all done their part to make gay marriage a seemingly natural development in American life. What we are seeing, as a number of astute observers of our social milieu have argued – from both sides of the divide – is a resurgence of classical paganism: monistic, pantheistic, sexually permissive, and intolerant of dissent. I’m using the term “pagan” not as a slur, but as a historic and philosophical description. Of course such people approve of gay marriage. They are thinking and acting as the pagans they are!
It is interesting and important to note that the countries that have legalized gay marriage are all countries that have long ago jettisoned any meaningful attachment to Christianity or, for that matter, to any organized religion. They are all in Europe and North America, except Brazil, Uruguay, and Argentina in South America and South Africa, countries that have aggressively secular elites, European in their view of life, and countries that have embraced the sexual revolution most enthusiastically. It hasn’t escaped notice that these are almost all dying societies. But my point this morning is not to rail. I have no doubt that in time the decision of the Supreme Court will be seen as another sharp curve in the death spiral of the Western world, but to point that out is of no particular use to us. Nor is my purpose to remind us all that we Christian believers have our sins to repent of in this affair.
The complicity of too many Christians in the institution of slavery and its underlying racism has made it much easier than it should ever have been for advocates of gay marriage to argue, as they have, indeed as the justices effectively did, that Christian opposition to homosexuality is very like the opposition of Christians to the full inclusion of African Americans in American life. And the implication is that we’ll get over this as we got over that.
And though no doubt the extent of this is wildly exaggerated, there have been Christians and Christian churches that have been uncharitable, ungracious, unhelpful and unwelcoming toward those struggling with same-sex attraction. I’m proud to say that we have in our Presbyterian Church in America ministers and elders who confess to same-sex attraction but who are living sexually chaste lives before God and man.
My point this morning is simply to remind you of something that American Christians surely know, but have not had to deal with very often in their history. We may be entering a new day in American Christianity, but in doing so we are entering the world in which many Christians, if not most Christians in the world today are thoroughly familiar. It is a world with which the church has been all too familiar throughout her history. We know that persecution and public opposition has often been the lot of the church of the Lord Jesus Christ, we know that human government has often been an avowed enemy of the Christian faith and its particularly of its practice in the world, but we have had virtually no experience of this until recently and, even when the government began turning against us, very few of us ever felt its lash in any personal way. There are outspoken Christians still in our national life and, indeed, even in our government. Christians are free to speak their mind. We are not sent to prison because we protest a government policy we believe to be contrary to the Word of God. We have not even suffered financially for our loyalty to Christ and the Bible. Ours remains a very comfortable life, however dismayed we may be by changes that are taking place in our country.
The recent decision of the Supreme Court is thought by observers, again on both sides of the issue, to herald a significant change in this respect and to usher in a day when Christians will find our place in our homeland increasingly tenuous and difficult. We may find ourselves marginalized in a variety of ways: in access to employment, in opportunities to serve in government, in access to higher education, in freedom from financial penalties enjoyed by those who acquiesce to government policy, and so on. We may find our freedom to practice our faith, to communicate it to our children, and to proclaim it to the world increasingly under pressure.
Well, as followers of Jesus Christ and as those who take their understanding of the world and of their life from the Word of God, what are we to make of that? Let me tell you. In this world, the kingdom of the Evil One, of the Prince of the power of the air, what we may now face in our land has been the Christian’s ordinary lot. Our peaceful co-existence with the state for the years of American history is an outlier, almost an exception. It is far more often the case that the Christian church and, particularly, the faithful Christian church finds itself surrounded by enemies and the state or government chief among them.
It was so from the beginning. In Israel’s history the government, putatively the government of the people of God themselves, was frequently an overt enemy of the faithful followers of the Lord. It was so, of course, when Israel labored as slaves in Egypt. But in Israel in King Ahab’s day, as you remember, the church had been reduced to the six thousand out of several million who had not bowed the knee to Baal. There is an ancient tradition that the prophet Isaiah was martyred by the government of King Manasseh and we know how much Jeremiah suffered at the hands of the miserable little men who ruled what was left of Judah in his day. The state, as a human institution almost always demands a measure of submission that believers in God are unable to offer. Human government, a tool in the Devil’s hand, invariably finds ways to make God’s people its enemy.
When the Lord Jesus promised Peter and the other apostles here in Matthew 16 that his church, built on the foundation of their apostolic ministry, was indestructible, he certainly did not intend to imply that the church would enjoy peaceful coexistence with the unbelieving world. To the contrary, the Lord prepared his disciples on a number of occasions for the opposition they would face. After all, his entire ministry had been conducted under the shadow of vengeful opposition from authorities threatened by his teaching and his popularity, and ended in his execution by the state on trumped up charges. He told them beforehand that not only was it the case that if they hated the Master they would hate his servants as well, but that the day was coming when “whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.”
And so it proved to be the case. Stephen, Paul, and Peter were executed by the state in the prime of their lives because their proclamation of the truth as it is in Jesus Christ. The government thought, the establishment thought itself threatened by this new religion. And in the centuries that followed Christians in large numbers were killed, imprisoned, impoverished, or otherwise persecuted for their loyalty to Christ. And later, after the establishment of the church in Europe, real believers often found a so-called Christian state their worst enemy. Think of the Waldensians in Italy or the Protestants in France or the Covenanters in Scotland.
In his masterpiece, The Everlasting Man, G.K. Chesteron identifies what he calls the “Five Deaths of the Faith.” He means those periods in Western history when Christianity seemed doomed either to extinction altogether or at least to be shoved to the outer margins of a post-Christian civilization. Indeed, as Chesterton puts it with his characteristic turn of phrase:
“Christianity has died many times and risen again; for it had a God who knew the way out of the grave.” [Collected Works, II, 382]
The ancient religions are dead and gone. Everyone knows this. No one worships Baal or Marduk or Jupiter any longer. But all over the world vast multitudes of men and women still worship Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who made his appearance in the world as Jesus of Nazareth. And their numbers continue to grow just as the number of secularists or mildly religious people begins to shrink across the Western world.
More often than not, when Christianity has suffered one of these supposed “deaths” it was the result of it being “hollowed out from within.”  Doubt and indifference and worldliness did it in, stripped it of spiritual power and reduced it to a mere tradition or set of outward behaviors. Chesterton’s five deaths were 1) the death of the Roman Empire (shouldn’t the church have died with it, when it was then the church’s home?); 2) the invasion of the church’s heartland by the armies of Islam; 3) the revolution of thought and culture produced by the Renaissance surely should have cut the legs out from underneath the Christian faith; 4) as equally the Enlightenment should have done her in the 18th century; and 5) who could have thought it might have endured the triple attack of Marx, Darwin, and Freud in the second half of the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth century?
And, of course, Chesterton had a European’s typical focus on the history of the church in the Western world. We have had to learn all over again that the church went eastward as well as westward from Palestine in the centuries following Pentecost. In fact is it thought now that by the time of the recognition of Christianity by the Roman emperor Constantine in the early fourth century there were more Christians east of the Holy Land than west of it. But the fortunes of the Eastern Church were as those of the western. We know that the gospel had reached China by the 7th century, but eventually it was banned by the emperor and stamped out by the 10th century. [K.S. Latourette, Christianity in a Revolutionary Age, iii, 433] And it was so in other places. The gospel advanced, the church was formed, she often thrived, but eventually she was persecuted or she withered from within; she was diminished and in some cases she actually disappeared from that part of the world.
But in every case the time of crisis was followed by a time of renewal and advance. Or as Chesterton tartly put it, “five times the Faith has to all appearances gone to the dogs. In each case it was the dog that died.”  Today there are vastly more Christians in the world – real Christians, living Christians, faithful Christians – than at any previous time in human history.
Even in areas of the Christian Church’s greatest strength, the fortunes of the church have constantly waxed and waned. She gained first a foothold in Europe and then great power, but then largely lost her soul in the Middle Ages. She 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. But before her spiritual collapse, unaware that they were replacing Britain’s dying faith, Britain’s missionaries planted the faith elsewhere in the world. In the 19th century England produced as many missionaries as it did accountants or architects, a sizeable number given that the thriving world of English business needed multitudes of accountants and buildings were going up everywhere in Victorian Britain! [Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism, 112] And the fruit of that mission is a burgeoning church in Africa and Asia.
So when the Lord promised Peter and his comrades and promised us that the Gates of Hell would not prevail against his church, he was not promising smooth sailing, but he was speaking the unvarnished truth! 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
It is easier to believe in the immortality of the gospel and the Christian church today than it has ever been. Why? Because we have all of this history to review, because there have been so many times when circumstances have augured poorly for the survival of the church, but 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 some hundred million or more of them there today.
So for us American Christians, the Supreme Court decision is an invitation for us to stop, to think, and to take stock, and to connect ourselves with the history of our spiritual ancestry in this world and the rest of the church in the world of our day. We are not the first and we will not be the last to find ourselves as followers of Jesus Christ beset by powerful enemies who at one and the same time despise our faith and are threatened by it. Indeed our experience in America over the past several hundred years has been a decidedly unusual chapter in the history of Christendom: a church for so long a time unfettered by the government of the land. As those days may now be coming to an end, as we may be facing more difficult times, as real suffering and loss may now be more and more required of us in order to remain loyal to the Lord Christ and his kingdom, it is ours to remember both that we are being assailed not by light and truth but by what our Savior described as “the gates of Hades”, the forces of death, and that those forces will not prevail. Perhaps in the United States as well it will be proved true once again that, figuratively if not literally, the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church!
Years ago Robert Wilken, the church historian, wrote a very valuable book entitled Christians as the Romans Saw Them. Idealizing the early church as we are tempted to do, we tend to forget how despised Christians frequently were in those early centuries after Pentecost. They were thought to be deeply unpatriotic, even dangerous to the public order, because they would not participate in the civil religion that was thought to bind society together. Their particular creed and their morality the pagans thought frankly ridiculous, absurd and, shall we say it, unmodern. It should surprise no one that in a newly pagan culture such as ours, many people see Christians once again in the same light. Many of the arguments brushed off and republished by the so-called new atheists can be found in the ancient writings of Galen, Celsus, and Porphyry.
Of course such people with such views would not only be despised, they would be punished, lest their thinking infect others or undermine the state. We should hardly be surprised, not particularly bothered frankly, if, in our neo-pagan world, people should think the same about us. They ought to think that about us, believing what they do about the world and about life. We are the principal threat to all that they stand for!
Elizabeth Elliot died a few weeks ago, if you hadn’t heard. The story of the martyrdom of her husband and four other missionaries at the hands of Ecuadorian Indians was front page news across the Western World in early 1956. All the major news organs published long articles detailing what happened and celebrating the commitment of these men and their wives to bring the gospel to the Aucas, or, as they are now called, the Waorani. They were international heroes! And so was Elizabeth when she, with her infant daughter, and Rachel Saint, the sister of another of the murdered men, returned to live and work among the very people who had murdered their loved ones. After returning to the States Elizabeth Elliot began to write and her books sold in the millions, more than a hundred million by one count, translated into at least nine different languages.
But Elizabeth began to lose some of her following in recent years when she wrote against promiscuity and in celebration of virginity and still more when she refused to embrace modern western feminism. The same culture that had celebrated her in the mid-1950s and early 1960s had turned against her. It happens. It has often happened. In fact, to one degree or another, it always happens. But, then, they turned against the Lord Jesus even after all the wonderful things he did for so many.
So we have been prepared for what may come both by the Word of God and the history of the church. We are taught in the Bible not only to refuse to worry about this – it is part and parcel of a faithful Christian life, it is a way of sharing in the sufferings of our Savior – but even to glory in it. As the apostles long ago, who ran afoul of the authorities for preaching the gospel in the streets of Jerusalem, so we today should consider it high honor “to be counted worthy to suffer for the Name.” In any case, let’s all take a deep breath, remember the struggle the kingdom of God has always had in this world of unbelief, given over to death as it is, square our shoulders and move forward in the serene confidence that being in the church by living faith in Jesus Christ, the gates of hell themselves will not prevail against us.
Interesting days ahead for us all. Very different days perhaps. But Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever!