The title of this week’s article contains the words of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 16:18. The verse, in its entirety, reads: “And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” This is the first time that the word “church” appears in our English translations. There are a number of things to note in these words which, if carefully observed and faithfully applied by all professing to be of the Christian faith, would have an immediate and dramatic impact on the spiritual landscape of our country. Taking the verse, with all of its constituent parts, we can break it down into at least four significant phrases, with each phrase setting forth an important truth relative to the church that Jesus promised to build.
“I” - Jesus is the builder. Jesus knew what it meant to build things, for His earthly step-father was a carpenter. I have no doubt that Joseph taught Jesus the fundamentals of carpentry. We have no record of Jesus having ever built a physical house, a piece of furniture, or a structure of any kind. Had He done so, men might have turned any structure He made into some kind of shrine. That is not to say that Jesus never built anything prior to the establishment of His church. Consider the words of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made” (John 1:1-3). The Hebrews writer tells us that Jesus upholds “all things by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). I sometimes muse regarding the beauty and quality of work our Lord has demonstrated in the making of the universe. No doubt He was a master builder, the beauty and design of the work of His hands manifesting His wisdom and power. So, when Jesus said He would build His church, I can be confident that every facet of that divine institution is of the highest quality, meeting the spiritual needs of those who make up His body. Since Jesus is the builder of His church, then any religious group that was not built by Jesus Christ cannot be the church of my Lord. That may sound simplistic to those who are members of the one body, but to a world caught up in denominational mentality, it is a truth that is not only strange to their hearing, but confusing to their minds.
“Will Build” - The entire work, from laying the foundation on the solid ‘rock,’ to the completion of the superstructure, was yet in the future at the time Jesus spoke these words. There is an element of predictive prophecy contained in the words of Jesus. We have the benefit of almost 2,000 years of history by which we can measure the sheer magnitude of the promise of Jesus. This kingdom, as prophesied by Daniel, has truly broken in pieces and consumed the kingdoms of the world (Dan. 2:44). Who, living at the time Jesus made this promise, would have ever imagined that the gospel would, within the lifetime of those apostles, be “preached in all creation under heaven” (Col. 1:23)? Consider this quote from Harry Rimmer, in his book, The Evidences for Immortality:
In the day when Christ died, Rome was utterly pagan. From one end of her empire to the other, from center to circumference, idolatry and paganism reigned supreme. The single exception was the monotheism of Judea. It is, therefore, a startling discovery to find that fifty years after Jesus died on the gallows of Rome there was a church reared to His memory and for His worship in every principle city of the Roman Empire! Two hundred and fifty years after Christ died for the sins of man, half the Roman Empire had accepted the gospel of redemption through His shed blood.
At the time Jesus spoke those words contained in Matthew 16:18, there was nothing, from a human point of view, that would even suggest that the kingdom Jesus would establish would bring Rome to its knees. When the Lord made that promise near Caesarea Philippi, many of His would-be followers had already turned away. The inner circle of disciples, those who would be appointed as apostles, had doubts and questions, not to mention that one of them would soon betray the Lord. He had no army, no funds, no political power, and a diminishing following. Yet still Jesus promised, “I will build my church.”
“My” - This two letter pronoun is packed with significance. Not only is Jesus the builder of the church; He also possesses the church. It is His by right of origination to the same extent that an earthly business is owned by its builder. That two letter pronoun, “my,” implies preeminence, as pronounced by the apostle Paul: “And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence” (Col. 1:18). Let men learn the meaning of that one word, “preeminence,” and then let them apply it in all aspects of Christian living, and forever gone would be the multitude of denominational terms and titles so revered by men. How anyone, in his right mind, with any degree of reason or common sense, can read that two letter pronoun, and then conclude that it makes no difference what church one belongs to, remains a mystery to me. The signs that appear on the edifices erected to one’s personal preferences in religion are as multitudinous as the buildings themselves. Yet the simple designations penned by the Holy Spirit always pay tribute to the One Who built and purchased the church with His blood (Acts 20:28). I cannot think of a term more concise, more compact, while at the same time showing respect and honor to Jesus Christ, than the inspired words used by Paul: “The churches of Christ salute you” (Rom. 16:16).
“Church” - The word church means “the called out.” When Jesus said He would build His church, He was not talking about a physical structure. He was going to build a “spiritual house,” consisting of “living stones,” to be a “holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5). This He has accomplished in a most remarkable fashion. It is important to notice that the word “church” is singular. Jesus said He would build His church; not churches. Why is this so difficult for men to grasp? Paul tells us, “There is one body, and one spirit, even as also ye were called in one hope of your calling” (Eph. 4:4). Earlier Paul had identified that body as the church: “And he put all things in subjection under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all” (Eph. 1:22-23). There is one body, and the body is the church! That there is, therefore, only one church, is as clear as night follows day. Yet men still deny it.
The verse does not end with the five words or phrases we have examined. Our Lord added these encouraging words: “And the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” I have no doubt that McGarvey was correct when he made the following comment on these words:
Hades is contemplated as a walled city waging war against the Church. Its gates are made the symbols of its power, because the military forces of an ancient city always issued forth from its gates, and the gates may be considered as sending them out. All the powers by which hades, the place of disembodied spirits, assails the Church, are included in the figure, the powers of demons, of Satan, and of death. The text is a pledge that the Church would never be tempted into total apostasy, nor be depopulated by the death of all its members (McGarvey, Fourfold Gospel).
Next time you read those familiar words in Matthew 16:18, take a moment to pause and consider the words; all the words, and each of the words. And then pause and give thanks to our Father in heaven for His divine wisdom in seeing to it that the church became, and remains a reality even to this day.
Brother Alexander has informed me that the first volume of my two volume commentary on John will be ready to pick up this week. I’ll still make these available at the prepublication price for those who desire a copy. You can purchase both volumes for $30, plus $2.02 tax (and shipping where applicable). Volume 2 will be ready this fall. To order your copy go to my website: click here