The Church and the Gates of Hell (Matthew 16:13-20)
Rev. Erik Veerman
The Church and the Gates of Hell
“What is a church plant and why would a group of people start one?” A few weeks ago, someone visiting was asking just that. I’ve heard of others with similar questions. Who are these crazy people who would plant a church? And in the midst of a pandemic, nonetheless! I mean, what motivated them to step out in faith?
Maybe you’re here to see what this is all about.
Well, I can’t answer for everyone’s individual motivations… but what I can tell you is that the church is central to God’s kingdom purposes. Because really, grasping the importance of the church to God, to Jesus answers those questions. It’s why we’re here.
Whether you are a Christian or not, I think you would agree… the church in our culture isn’t as prominent as it has been in the past. Even for people who say they are Christians – the average church attendance is about 1 ½ times a month. That says a lot.
But if we could catch the vision of the church… understand her prominence in the grand plan of God… and faithfully fulfill Jesus call… there would be a great renewal of churches. There wouldn’t be just one new church in Tucker, there would be many.
My hope is that you would catch that vision this morning. And not just for the church but for Jesus himself.
That brings us to Matthew chapter 16. First, a little bit of background. This chapter is a turning point in the book. Leading up to it, Jesus had preached his famous sermon on the mount; he had called his 12 disciples, and he had begun to teach them. And all along the way He had healed many people. But just who was Jesus? The people marveled at his teaching and miracles, but they were asking that very question. But Jesus was not yet ready to reveal his identity. You can see that down in verse 20 – even though he confirmed his identity to his disciples (that’s who he was with here)… Jesus wasn’t ready for the crowds to know.
All of that helps explain verses 13 to 16. Jesus first wanted the disciples to acknowledge what the people were saying about him.
“Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” By the way, Jesus often referred to himself as “the Son of Man.” It’s actually a reference to the Old Testament book of Daniel – where “the Son of Man” is God himself – the Ancient of Days, who reigns in heaven with dominion over all things. Well, the crowds didn’t make that connection. No, rather they thought Jesus was just another prophet – like John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah. The crowds didn’t think Jesus was God… they didn’t think he was the promised Savior – they were expecting a political savior… one who would restore the earthly kingdom of Israel.
But then, Jesus turned the question to his disciples: “But who do you say that I am?”
Now, our focus this morning is on the church - mainly Jesus words in verse 18. But this here, Jesus’ question to his disciples and the apostle Peter’s response in verse 16… is the pivot point of the entire book of Matthew. From here on out, Jesus’ focus would be on Jerusalem, on the cross. He was preparing himself and preparing his disciples for what would come. And it began with an acknowledgement of Jesus identity.
“Who do you say that I am?” Peter was the one who replied… To some extent, we can each identify with Peter. He struggled at times with his faith. He was the disciple who began to sink in the water because of his lack of faith. Yet at times he had a boldness and courage and conviction, especially as grew in his faith. And we get a glimpse of that here.
Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Peter’s response acknowledged two related things about Jesus’ identity. First, Jesus was the promised Savior. The Old Testament scriptures spoke of a Messiah – an anointed one – that’s what the title “Christ” referred to. He would come and deliver his people. And second, Peter identified Jesus as God himself: “Son of the living God.”
This was a significant statement. And Jesus affirmed Peter’s response. He said to Peter, “blessed are you” and then Jesus confirmed that his Father in heaven is the one who revealed it to Peter – verse 17. This understanding, this confession was given to Peter. In a sense, Peter is the first Christian, the first one to confess Jesus as the Christ, Son of God.
Now, let me say, there have been many many sermons preached on these verses - focusing on Jesus’ question and Peter’s response. For this morning, though, I want to turn our attention now to verse 18 and the church, but the lead up is critical. For one, confessing Christ is the necessary foundation for the church. But also, Peter’s confession speaks to Jesus’ authority and power to establish his Church. He is the only Savior, the Sovereign Lord, the King, the only one who can establish his church. That’s where the church needs to begin – confessing Christ.
That brings us to verse 18. Jesus says to him, “you are Peter, and on this rock, I will build my church.” Before we get to what Jesus meant about building “on this rock” that second phrase is critically important, “I will build my church.”
I Will Build My Church
This is the first time that the word “church” is used in the Gospels. The underlying Greek word was familiar to them – it means assembly. But the specific use, “my assembly” or “the assembly” is church. Sometimes referring to all believers in Christ, other times referring to the visible representation of people in the church, and other times referring to specific local congregations. Here, Jesus is talking about his church in broader terms. The people of God. Believers – those who confess Jesus as the Christ as Peter did.
It’s his church. He is building it. Even though we sometimes call the church building “the church,” the Biblical use of the word doesn’t refer to a building. No, it’s Jesus’ people together. He is drawing people to his church. Jesus is establishing it. He is king over her. Her Lord, her savior. I’m using a feminine pronoun because the Scriptures call the church “the Bride of Christ.” He is the bridegroom. Her spiritual head, who served her by dying for her. And Jesus is now ascended in heaven ministering to her.
We’re here at Tucker Pres not because we’re building some human society to help each other out. No, no, no for multiple reasons! God has established his church with his vision and his goals and his oversight. And we’re not building it.
We’re here at Tucker Pres to be faithful stewards over Jesus’ church - some leading, some serving, some ministering, some being ministered to, and all of us praying and worshipping. It’s all his, for His glory. It’s his church that he is building.
“I will build my church”
On this Rock
And Jesus specifically focuses on Peter. “on this rock I will build my church.” Jesus here uses a word play between Peter’s name – Petra, which means “rock” and “the rock” on which he will build his church.
Now, some, such as the Roman Catholic church, have taken this to mean that Peter’s role is authoritative. That there is a successive line of authority. I think that’s a hard case to make. Let me give you 3 reasons:
• First – The apostle Peter was not always a model of a faithful leader. If you are looking at Matthew chapter 16, jump down to verse 23 – just 5 verses later. Jesus said to Peter “get behind me, Satan!” That was when Peter applied human reasoning to Jesus’ mission. Then, later… after Jesus was arrested, Peter denied him three times. To be sure, Peter matured in his faith and leadership over time but he was not always a rock, so to speak.
• Second – Jesus is the cornerstone. Peter himself wrote that in his first letter. We read it earlier in the service. Jesus is the cornerstone, and we are living stones built on top of him. It’s Jesus’ church, not Peter’s, and Jesus is building it, as we just read.
• Third – We’ve been studying Acts – and Peter certainly has a role. But remember James was the leader of the church in Jerusalem. Paul is the one establishing churches all over the northern Mediterranean. And the model in the churches is based on elders. When broader matters arise, the elders and apostles came together as they did in Acts 15. There’s no example of an authoritative church hierarchy in Scripture… and the apostles together shared in the establishment of the church.
No, rather, Peter did play an important part. He’s the one who confessed Christ here. He preached at Pentecost as we studied. He brought the Gospel to Cornelius – the Roman centurion. Those are important things historically for the church. Jesus was acknowledging that. Peter was the first living stone as part of the spiritual building of the church. The other apostles were other living stones that Jesus placed in his church as part of the foundation. Their cumulative role and teaching helped establish the church.
We’re here at Tucker Pres because of the faithfulness of the apostles, because of faithful elders, because of faithful servants in the church over the centuries. We’re here because faithful local congregations sent out people to plant churches… and missionaries that confessed who Christ is like verse 16. Our parent church, Westminster, sent me and several of you. We’re each living stones that Jesus is using to build his church and it began with the first living stone, Peter.
The Gates of Hell!
And... next… Jesus great promise for the church: “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Jesus had just said we’re his church. He is building us, Tucker Pres included. But then he gives this amazing promise. It’s a present and future promise. The church will prevail. Nothing will stop her. Not even the gates of hell - or hades. Hades is the Greek word here. It means the place of the dead or the place of punishment. I’ll elaborate on the whole phrase in a couple of minutes. But first let me give you some imagery to picture this.
This is for the boys here. There’s just something exhilarating about blowing things up. Right? Really, that doesn’t go away the older you get. Now imagine if you wanted to destroy a safe and its contents. A big thick metal safe with an unsolvable lock on it. What would be the most effective way? Well, explosions on the outside probably wouldn’t be enough. That’s because the force of the blow would be deflected away. No, actually what you would want to do is drill a hole in the safe, drop your nitroglycerine into the safe, and then detonate it. The explosive force, something like 10,000 times its original displacement, would have nowhere to go and would utterly demolish the safe. And… it would be very cool to watch.
That’s the first image. One way to understand Jesus’ words here is that the “gates of hades” will not keep God’s people in. No, death will be swallowed up in victory. The church will explode the gates of hell from the inside out. From death to life. Nothing will stop it. That’s the first possible interpretation.
The second possible interpretation here is the opposite. That the church is like a battering ram, which will penetrate hell – hell being Satan’s dominion with all his demonic forces of evil. The “gates of hell” will not stop the church from breaking in and destroying Satan. The US Navy has been developing this new type of gun which is electromagnetic. It fires a projectile at hypervelocity using electricity… instead of some explosive powder. The projectile goes something like 1-2 miles per second. Imagine that. The sheer force completely obliterates its target. With this second understanding, the church would be like that. The gates of hell, the devil and the powers of darkness, would be utterly destroyed by the church from the outside in.
I don’t think either understanding changes Jesus’ point. It shall happen, he said. The church will prevail. There’s so much here. Jesus is teaching that the church is his means, his mechanism to accomplish his victory. And he is the head of the spear – he’s the firstborn from the dead.
The church is central to God’s redemptive plans. This is a now thing and a future thing. We’re participating in something way beyond us as individuals or a local congregation. It’s bigger and beyond our full comprehension. And we can persevere and have confidence as God’s church… not hoping that we’ll be victorious with Christ, but knowing that we’ll be victorious. In other words, we’re starting from a place of victory.
We’re here at Tucker Pres because “the gates of hell will not prevail against the church.” And local congregations are part and parcel to the way that God is building his church. Jesus is accomplishing and will accomplish his redemptive plans. And we at Tucker Pres can have confidence in that. A pandemic is not going to stop the church. Corruption from the inside is not going to stop her. Attacks from the outside are not going to stop her. No, the imagery here is the opposite. It’s the church, in fact, that’s on the offensive here. It’s the one doing the damage against hell, against hades. And the local church – faithful to confess Christ, including Tucker Pres, is participating in God ultimate victory in Christ.
“the gates of hell will not prevail”
Keys of the Kingdom
In verse 19, Jesus’ promise to the church continues. “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.”
The metaphor is opening the gates of heaven. So we’re going from breaking the gates of hell – sin and death and the devil… to unlocking the gates of heaven. Well, what are the keys of the kingdom? Well, it’s the very thing that frees people from death to life. It’s the Gospel. Christ’s ministry on the cross - his death bearing the punishment for sin… which he overcome by his resurrection. He himself broke down the gates of hell. Death could not hold him – he rose victoriously.
Those are the keys of the kingdom. And the church has been given this Gospel message. We have the responsibility to declare it, to protect it, to send it out… and God is working through his church in this. As the Gospel call goes out from the church, God is breaking the bonds of death and hell, and he is building his church by bringing people to the kingdom of heaven.
We’re here at Tucker Pres because God has given the Gospel keys to his church – to us. We’re here to be a Gospel light to Tucker… a city on a hill… to be a place where God’s Word is preached… The church is God’s ordained instrument for Gospel witness, and we’re here to be that.
Even though Jesus was still talking to Peter, the keys are for the church. Matthew makes that clear a couple of chapters later. If you turn one page over and look at chapter 18 verse 18, you’ll see the same language. “…whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” And the context here is the church. Jesus was saying here that if there’s a disagreement, try to work it out individually, but if need be, take it to the church. And then he says the same thing he had told Peter a couple chapters prior – “whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” In other words, the church, not just Peter, has been given the keys. It has the responsibility for ministry and discipline. Binding and loosening refer to overseeing and deciding matters related to God’s kingdom and His people – his church.
So do you see what I mean? …the church is not a human invention, it’s not a social club.
No, rather, the church is…
• The Bride of Christ, even in all her messiness at times, she is adorned with the splendor of her bridegroom. She is being built and fashioned through the all-surpassing knowledge of her savior.
• She is the earthly representation of God’s people – temples of the living God being built together, filled with his Spirit, united in his grace, working together for his kingdom, loving one another in him, declaring his salvation, and giving glory to his holy name.
• It is Jesus’ church that he is building – calling and laying each living stone… from this rag-tag group of disciples to now billions of people professing his name.
• And it will not be stopped. The gates of hell will not hold the church in… or the gates of hell will not stand against the Gospel offensive of the church, for she has been given the Gospel keys of the kingdom. And one day, the full church, all together, will be worshipping in the courts of the Lord forever.
This is why we are here today. Why Tucker Pres exists. And why we will seek to be faithful to Jesus’ call one year at a time, for at least the next 100 years.
Let me end where we began. Jesus’ question to Peter and his disciples, “But who do you say that I am?” It’s where it all began for the church… and where it all begins for each of us.
Jesus’ question is for you: “who do you say that I am?”
Are you able to respond as Peter did? I know many of you are. “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God.” If you’ve never confessed that… confess that today. Through that confession, you’ll become a living stone, built by Christ into his church. Through him, you’ll prevail with his church over the gates of hell and into the kingdom of heaven. Will you confess Christ and be victorious with Christ and his church?