In Matthew 16:16-18 our Lord makes an astonishing promise. This is especially true when we consider the historical and political setting. The tide was beginning to turn on our Lord. The leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees was beginning to have its effect on the masses, and the popularity of Jesus was waning. Keep in mind that after the feeding of the 5,000 and our Lord’s lesson on the Bread of Life, that “many of his disciples went back, and walked no more with him” (John 6:65). Rome was at the peak of its power, and the religious elite in Israel had threatened to put all those who confessed the name of Jesus out of the synagogue (John 12:42). The cross was drawing near and the time for the Son of man to “go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed” (Matt. 16:21) was close at hand. Out of that background, and standing in the very shadow of the cross, our Lord made this most incredible promise to His disciples: “Upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it!” (Matt. 16:18). Then He promises Peter (as well as the other apostles) that He would give them the “keys to the kingdom” (Matt. 16:19). A K-I-N-G-D-O-M? Yes, a kingdom. Now, keep this promise of our Lord in mind as you consider the following
The establishment and growth of the church in the first three centuries is nothing short of amazing. No movement in the history of the world has been as rapid or made as significant an impact as has the growth of the church in the first centuries of her existence. The exact count of the number of Christians by the end of that first century is not available, but some have estimated that the Lord’s church may very well have reached a half a million or more. Evidence suggests that the churches in Antioch, Ephesus, and Corinth were strong enough to bear the strain of controversy and division into parties. With the exception of these few larger congregations, most of the local churches were small, consisting perhaps of only a small handful of poor people. Christian converts came mostly from the middle and lower classes of society, such as fishermen, peasants and slaves. This is why Paul wrote: “Not many wise after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble were called, but God chose the foolish things of the world, that he might put to shame them that are wise; and God chose the weak things of the world that he might put to shame the things that are strong; and the base things of the world, and the things that are despised, did God choose, yea, and the things that are not, that he might bring to naught the things that are: that no flesh should glory before God” (1 Cor. 1:26-29). Yet who would deny that these poor and illiterate churches had received the greatest blessings imaginable and thus attain to the highest thoughts which could possibly challenge the attention of mortal mind?
By the time of Constantine in the beginning of the fourth century the number of Christians has been estimated to have reached between ten and twelve million, or about one tenth of the total population of the Roman Empire. Some have even estimated it higher. This rapid growth of Christianity in the face of overwhelming opposition is not only surprising, but is its own best evidence of the Supernatural power that lay behind this movement. It was accomplished in the face of an indifferent and hostile world, and by purely spiritual and moral means, without shedding a drop of blood except that of its own innocent martyrs.
When Jesus made that powerful promise almost two-thousand years ago He unleased the forces of heaven in order to achieve what skeptics may have declared as impossible. All the enemies of Jesus, from the unbelieving Jewish elite to Pontus Pilate, combined could not prevail against that ‘powerful promise’ that flowed from the precious lips of our Savior on that momentous occasion.