READ : Matthew 16:16-19
What exactly is God doing in the world today? Jesus Christ came into the world with a special work to do—the work of salvation, which he accomplished once and for all on the cross. But that doesn’t mean he’s now retired. Would you like to know what Jesus’ continuing work is?
Caesarea Philippi was a gentile city situated in what today is southern Lebanon, due north of the Sea of Galilee. It’s mentioned just once in the New Testament, in Matthew 16. This was the place where Jesus chose to reveal his full identity clearly to his disciples, culminating in Peter’s Great Confession: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Like everything Jesus did, his choice of this spot was intentional. The great confession that Jesus is both Son of God and Messiah takes place not in the synagogue of Nazareth or the Temple in Jerusalem, but in Caesarea Philippi, on foreign soil, where Jesus and his disciples are surrounded by idols’ shrines and gentile pagans. In other words, this is a missionary setting; Jesus has more than just Israel on his mind.
He’s already beginning the long, slow, sometimes painful process of opening his disciples’ eyes to the needs of the world. He wants them to learn that he is more than just the Jewish Messiah; he’s the Savior of everyone. Jesus’ disciples then, and many of his followers today, don’t care very much about the whole world. But Jesus does, and that’s why he chooses Caesarea Philippi for the revelation of his divine nature and messianic mission. In fact, a line runs straight from Matthew 16 to Matthew 28, from the Great Confession to the Great Commission: “Go into all the world and make disciples of every nation.”
“I Will Build My Church”
Jesus underscores this connection by his response to Peter’s confession.
. . . Jesus answered him, Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
In this key statement Jesus defines his life’s work. Let’s think about what that is. The gospels show Jesus active in many different kinds of work: preaching and teaching, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, delivering the spiritually oppressed and demon-possessed. These works of mercy and instruction occupied the three years of his public ministry. But the greatest work Jesus came into the world to accomplish happened at the cross. As he himself put it, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
All of this work, though, was completed long ago. Having died once for the sins of the world and then risen in power and glory, Jesus no longer has any sacrificial work to perform. His saving work, in other words, has been accomplished, for all time.
So what is he doing now? What sort of activity has occupied him since his resurrection? What is his continuing work, as opposed to his finished work? The answer is given by Jesus himself here in Matthew 16: he is a builder. “I will build my church,” Jesus declares to his disciples, and that is exactly what he has been doing for the past 2,000 years. Christ’s church—that vast international, multi-racial, poly-lingual, transcultural body consisting of all those who believe in him as Savior and follow him as Lord from all the nations of the earth—that is what is at the very center of Jesus’ attention and effort.
You know, he’s always been very disciplined and focused. Do you remember what Jesus said to his parents as a mere boy of twelve? “I must be about my Father’s business.” And that business is to gather a people for his own possession out of the whole world.
I’m just naive enough to take Jesus’ statement here at face value, and believe that the most important thing in all the world to him is the growth of his church. Call it simplistic thinking, but this looks to me like the clue that can answer a lot of important questions. For example, what is God really doing in the world? If Jesus is God, then it’s clear; he is building his church.
What is the underlying meaning of human history? It’s the story of Christ building his church. Why hasn’t Jesus returned yet, as he promised, to bring the consummation of all things? Because he hasn’t finished building his church. How should I as a Christian evaluate my life decisions? Do they help to build the church? What should my highest priority be as a follower of Jesus Christ? To build . . . well, you get the idea.
On this Rock
But there’s much more here. Jesus not only defines his ongoing work, he also explains how he’s going to accomplish it: “On this rock I will build my church.” Jesus said that to Peter, just after giving him his new name. In Greek, as you may know, Peter means “rock.” So Jesus is making a play on words here: “I’ll call you ‘Rocky,'” he tells Simon, “and I’ll build my church on this Rock.”
And what exactly does he mean by that? Christians have disagreed about whether Jesus meant he would make Peter himself the foundation of the church or whether he meant that it was Peter’s confession that would constitute the basis for the Christian church.
Protestants believe that Jesus intended the latter. The New Testament, I think, clearly teaches that Christ himself is the only foundation on which the church rests. “No one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Christ Jesus,” wrote the apostle Paul (1 Corinthians 3:11). No single individual could serve as the rock on which the church is built because every single individual is flawed and fallible, including Peter. In fact, just a few verses later in Matthew 16 Jesus will rebuke Peter sharply for his mistaken notions about what Jesus should do. “Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus says to him, “You are a hindrance to me for you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man” (v. 23).
So it is not on the person of Peter that Christ promises to build his church but on the testimony of Peter to the truth of the gospel. This is what Paul means when he writes to the Ephesians that “The church is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (2:20). It’s the apostolic witness to Christ, summarized and preserved in the books of the New Testament, that creates the base on which the church is built. But, as the hymn says, “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.”
The Gates of Hell
And then Jesus says a third thing in this text. He promises that his church-building work will not fail, no matter what. “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” What this verse literally says is that “the gates of Hades, or death, shall not prevail against it.” This was Jesus’ way of saying that absolutely nothing in heaven or on earth would be able to stop the growth of his church outward into the world and downward through the centuries of human history. Even death itself would not stop Christ’s church. Not Peter’s death, or the deaths of the other apostles, most of whom gave their lives as martyrs for the faith they proclaimed. As the church father Tertullian said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Not even Jesus’ own death would stop it; on the contrary, the cross is the very source from which Christian faith flows.
Remember this: for all its faults and failings, the church of Jesus Christ is more than merely a human institution. It is divinely ordained and providentially sustained. God is working in and through the church, which is why it cannot fail. As Jesus said to Peter, “Blessed are you Simon, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”
It’s easy to get down on the church, believe me, I know, especially if you are working in it. But the church of Christ is more than flesh and blood — admittedly, all too often weak flesh, and bad blood. But nevertheless, the church is the sign of the kingdom of God, on the march throughout the world. It will continue, it will endure, it will triumph, beyond time and space, when God’s kingdom has fully come.
The Keys of the Kingdom
One final thing. Jesus enlists us in his great church-building work. He doesn’t have to; I’m sure he could do it more easily without us. But he chooses to. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” he tells his followers. Once again, Christians have puzzled over his meaning. But in this image of the keys of the kingdom I think Jesus is referring to the gospel message itself. As we preach or teach or bear simple witness to the Lord Jesus and his power to save, we are literally opening the door of heaven to those who listen. All who believe and confess faith in Christ will enter. When we promise eternal life to those who accept our message, God himself backs up the claim, he confirms that promise. That is amazing when you think about it! Calvin writes this,
It is a wonderful consolation to godly souls that they know that the news of salvation brought to them by some little mortal man is ratified before God.
And you know what? Speaking as a little mortal man myself whose calling is to preach the gospel, I can say that’s a wonderful consolation to me as well. So believe the good news of Jesus Christ and enter the kingdom of heaven.