Scripture: Matthew 16:13-20
One of the topics on many people’s minds today is the church. There are a variety of thoughts on the church in general, but there is a focus among church members and church leaders on how to build up the church. It’s no secret that the majority of mainline, established churches today are on the decline. Membership numbers are down, attendance numbers are down, interest in the church overall is down. A few decades ago, church leaders didn’t have to think too much about the growth of the church. Everyone went to church pretty much every Sunday, or so it seemed. The average age of a church member in most congregations is rising. Large building that once housed large ministries now only have a fraction of what they once held. Some older churches are even closing their doors and selling their property. A few other churches are consolidating with other congregations and combining resources.
First of all, it’s important, that church leaders and members recognize this trend. Second, it’s vital that members don’t sit back and blame the changes in society for the new challenges – society has changed, but blaming society won’t make things any better. It’s also important that changes aren’t made simply for the sake of change. There should be a response to this whole situation, but it needs to be a wise one that is Biblically-based. In this passage, there’s a conversation between Simon Peter and Jesus about the nature of the church. Through this conversation, there is insight as to where to start in building up the church. There are three critical questions answered.
First of all, who builds the church? If the church is declining, if the church needs to be rebuilt, then whose job is it to do? It’s a critical question, one that needs to be answered before going any further. A little over a decade ago, I completed a doctorate program at Southern Seminary in missions, evangelism and church growth. The issue of church growth was important then, and its even more important now. A large part of the coursework was examining the Bible and researching churches, to see just what made the growing ones click and what caused the declining ones to struggle. One common thing that kept appearing in congregation after congregation was looking to the wrong people and things for growth. A pastor cannot make the church grow – he can point the people in the right direction, but he can’t do it. A program cannot make the church grow — many congregations feel if they can just find the right program, whether it be small groups or a stronger Sunday School, or innovative outreach, that the church will grow – a program cannot make the church grow.
A worship style, whether it be traditional or contemporary, cannot make the church grow.
Elders cannot make the church grow – “if a church would just have elders, then it would grow.” That isn’t the case.
Youth and children cannot make the church grow.
Trying to imitate a successful congregation across town or across the state won’t make a church grow.
Waving the banner of the state convention or the national denomination won’t make a church grow.
The answer is so simple that many people overlook it.
It’s in Scripture again and again, and churches that discover it come alive. Listen to verse 18 – it’s the key verse for the message. Jesus is speaking. “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Did you catch it?
Who builds the church? Jesus builds the church. Jesus is the catalyst for growth. There are many more verses that say exactly the same thing. Jesus says in John 15:1, 4-5, “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. …Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”
The greatest church planter and expert in church growth throughout history, second only to Jesus, is the Apostle Paul. He says in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” What was his message? Christ and him crucified. His life was not about any kind of plan, but about a person. Paul also said in Philippians 3:8, “…everything else is worthless when compared with the infinite value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have discarded everything else, counting it all as garbage, so that I could gain Christ.”
Colossians 1:18-20 also says, “Christ is also the head of the church, which is his body. He is the beginning, supreme over all who rise from the dead. So he is first in everything. For God in all his fullness was pleased to live in Christ, and through him God reconciled everything to himself. He made peace with everything in heaven and on earth by means of Christ’s blood on the cross.”
So who is the one who builds the church? Jesus.
The second question this passage in Matthew 16 answers is how the church is built. Exactly how does God get it done? Every sincere church member or leader wants to make sure that if there’s something he/she needs to do in response to Jesus’ action, that it’s the right response. Now that its been made clear who builds the church, how does Jesus get it done? Or, in other words, what part do you and I play? How do the people fit into the picture?
Surely there is something we must do in response. Doesn’t the Bible say that God helps those who help themselves? (Actually the Bible doesn’t say that – most historians say Benjamin Franklin said it. Regardless, it’s really bad theology). God helps those who realize they can’t help themselves.
So anyway, how does God get it done? “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” There is a play on words here in the Greek. The name Peter means rock. So in other words Jesus says, “Your name is Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.” It’s tempting here to pull this verse from its context and miss the meaning. These words are not about the person of Peter or Peter’s successors. These words are in response to what Peter just confessed. To understand the conversation, read the verses just before this one. Matthew 16:13-17 say, “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And 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.”
Jesus builds his church with his disciples. “Well pastor, what about the building that sits on Second Avenue and 23rd Street. Isn’t this place the church?” This structure is important, because its where the church meets, but it isn’t the church. The people are the church. 1 Peter 2:5 says, “You yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Jesus is the cornerstone of the church, he is the one on whom everyone else depends. You and I are living stones. The church is built with disciples, or followers, of Jesus Christ. These disciples are people who are not just committed to a social group, or to a cause, or to respectable morality. These disciples are committed to Jesus. So the more people are encouraged to follow Jesus and to deepen their relationship to Him, the strong the church becomes and the more it grows.
The third question answered in this key verse is why the church is built. A small shop years ago had a sign in its window that read, “Gone out of business. Never knew what our business was.” One more time – Matthew 16:18 says, “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.”
“The gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
The last part of this verse is often interpreted the wrong way. A classic illustration of it is the old hymn, “Hold the Fort.” There are many hymns that have rich, Biblical theology, but this hymn isn’t one of them. The words say,
Ho, my comrades, see the signal, waving in the sky!
Reinforcements now appearing, victory is nigh.
“Hold the fort, for I am coming,” Jesus signals still;
Wave the answer back to Heaven, “By Thy grace we will.”
See the mighty host advancing, Satan leading on;
Mighty ones around us falling, courage almost gone!
See the glorious banner waving! Hear the trumpet blow!
In our Leader’s Name we triumph over every foe.
Fierce and long the battle rages, but our help is near;
Onward comes our great Commander, cheer, my comrades, cheer!”
The message being given here is that the church is like the Alamo. It is surrounded by hostile forces. Even though people are dropping left and right and the outlook is bleak, take courage and “hold the fort!” Jesus is on his way! Sadly many Christians have adopted this mindset for the church, and use the last part of this verse as a basis. “The gates of hell won’t prevail against us” – we’ll hold the fort!
The church in the Bible is never meant to be a fortress. Think about the words here for a moment – do gates advance? Gates of course swing, but do they go on the offensive? Of course not – in a military situation they are a defensive device. Hell is on the move – the church is on the move, and even the gates of hell itself cannot withstand the advance. So the purpose of the church is to be on the move, the purpose of the church is to break down the gates of hell itself.
In other words, the purpose of the church is missions. Missions simply means taking the love and message of Jesus to hurting and lost people where they are. Local missions, regional missions, and international missions are the purpose of the church.
Jesus says in Matthew 28:18-20,
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Acts 1:8 also says,
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
When a church loses touch with missions, it begins to wither and die.
Missions isn’t just about funds. It’s important to give to missions, and to give generously. Missions isn’t just about funds though – missions is about focus. If the focus of the church is on what the members are doing when they come together, it isn’t on missions. The focus is to be on what God is doing when the members depart to serve. In a football game a huddle is important, but the focus always has to be on what is happening on the field. If the huddling together is the most important part of being on the team, games are sure to be lost. The church is built for missions, to make an impact on the community, the region and the world.
Will you be the church?
Will you surrender to Jesus, will you be his follower, will you focus on making a difference in the world around you?