Will the Church Survive?
Christians in the US and Europe are living in unusual times. Before our eyes we see laws enacted that directly oppose or subtly undermine the truths, values and principles the church has upheld for centuries. Despite their benefit to Western democracies, those democracies are destroying the very things that have preserved them. So many Christians are understandably wondering, ‘Will the church survive?’
It is by no means an academic issue. With almost daily news of restrictions placed on churches, investigations of their leaders and growing numbers of prosecutions, the church in the West is facing alarming levels of opposition. How then can we talk about the church’s security? The answer is because Jesus himself speaks of it in Matthew’s Gospel.
He does so in response to Peter’s confession that he is ‘the Christ, the Son of the living God’ at Caesarea Philippi (Mt 16.16). It is the first time Jesus uses the word ‘church’ in his earthly ministry, which makes what he says about its future all the more significant.
He makes it clear that Peter has not reached this conclusion about his identity through his own insight and observation, but because it had been revealed ‘by my Father in heaven’ (Mt 16.17). But it is what Jesus says next that is so astonishing: ‘And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it’ (Mt 16.18).
However intriguing these words may be, there can be no doubting the fact that, on the one hand, they have to do with the long-term security of the church and, on the other, that its security is bound up with its relationship to Jesus as the Christ.
Built on Solid Rock
When Jesus says the church will be built on a ‘rock’ he is using a deliberate play on words with Peter’s name. His name in Greek was Petros – a variant of petra, the word Jesus uses for ‘rock’. Jesus’ point is that his church rests on a solid foundation.
In the context of Matthew’s record of this incident and in the way Jesus words this statement, it is hard not to wonder how the church’s rock solid foundation can be connected to Peter. The Roman Catholic Church has used these words to justify the papacy and claim that Peter was the first Pope.
Protestants, seeking to distance themselves from this interpretation lean instead towards Peter’s confession as the ‘rock’ Jesus has in mind. That the church rests on the apostolic testimony. But, even though this is certainly a safer way to capture the sense of these words, it does not do justice to Jesus’ deliberate pun.
Jesus may well be making the point that the great confession cannot be separated from the confessor. That the original living ‘foundation stones’ of the New Testament church were indeed the apostles who bore witness to Jesus as Messiah (Eph 2.20). It was not their testimony in the abstract that caused it to be established and grow, but what they were in fellowship with Christ. Despite their personal weakness, foolishness and failure, Jesus chose them and used them to show God’s wisdom and power through them (1Co 1.26-31). The foundation Jesus laid for the church with the Twelve, became the paradigm for his ongoing building programme ever since.
Secured at Great Cost
There are also other details in the Matthew passage that help us to see the strength of this great foundation of the church.
Most obviously it is the fact Jesus describes the church as belonging to him. ‘I will build my church.’ At the most basic level, from other New Testament passages, this is true because the church as his people was ‘chosen in him before the creation of the world’ (Eph 1.4, 11). What God decreed in eternity past underpins all he has done and will do throughout history.
This spills over into what Jesus taught about his earthly mission and what it would involve. He says ‘he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life’ (Mt 16.21). In order to secure salvation for his people, Jesus would have to endure the cross.
This ties in with the nature of the relationship God established with his people through covenant. His people did not bind themselves to him, but he to them and he has sealed that bond with the blood of his own Son (Mt 26.27-28).
Paul also shows that the church belongs to Christ through the redemptive aspect of his death. He tells the Corinthians, ‘You are not your own; you were bought at a price’ (1Co 6.19-20) and the Christians in Rome, ‘We belong to the Lord’ (Ro 14.8). And, as the apostle points out to in Ephesians, since he has paid so dearly to redeem the church as his bride, he will not fail to ensure that one day she will indeed be presented to him ‘as a radiant church, without spot or wrinkle or any other blemish’ (Eph 5.27).
On top of all this, Jesus makes it clear that he came to ‘seek and to save what was lost’ (Lk 19.10). He is the Good Shepherd who ‘calls his sheep by name and leads them out’ (Jn 10.3), ‘lays down his life for the sheep’ and, because of this, can say, ‘I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish’ (Jn 10.27).
Too often Christians see the church as their property – not merely in the sense of its buildings paid for at their expense, but as being for them to decide what it should be and how it should function. When that happens, the security of individual churches and denominations is indeed shaken and not infrequently marks the end of their work and witness. But the continued global expansion of the church only serves to prove that Christ is indeed holding on to it.
Protected from the Darkest Enemy
Jesus alludes to another aspect of the church’s guarantee of safety when he says at Caesarea Philippi, ‘…and the gates of Hades will not overcome it’ (Mt 16.18). Once more Jesus’ choice of words may seem hard to fathom – at least from our distance in history and culture. While it is not hard to get the gist of what he means – the powers of darkness will not triumph over the church – it still leaves us wondering why he worded it in this way.
The clue may lie in the fact that in the Ancient world, the local authorities did not have purpose-built public offices, but would normally meet, or have a presence at the town gates. It still possible to see the preserved remains of such an arrangement in Tel Dan in Northern Israel today.
So when Jesus speaks of ‘the gates of Hades’ not prevailing against the church, he is, as Donald MacLeod has put it, referring to ‘the parliament of hell’ plotting the church’s downfall. Paul leaves us in no doubt that the enemy God’s people should fear most belongs to that dark realm. He tells the Ephesians, ‘our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms’ (Eph 6.12). Christians should not take him lightly.
In one sense, Jesus’ word in itself was sufficient to put Satan in his place. As Martin Luther put it in ‘A Mighty Fortress is our God’,
And though this world, with devils filled,
should threaten to undo us,
we will not fear, for God has willed
his truth to triumph through us.
The prince of darkness grim,
we tremble not for him;
his rage we can endure,
for lo! his doom is sure;
one little word shall fell him.
But Jesus did far more. Through his death – climaxed with the words, ‘It is finished’ (Jn 19.30) – he declared to his Father and to the world, that his mission to crush the head of the serpent (Ge 3.15) had been accomplished. And what he declared verbally before he died, the Holy Spirit vindicated miraculously through his resurrection (Ro 1.4).
The church will be embroiled in cosmic conflict against the unseen powers of darkness until the day Jesus returns. At times her tribulation will be great (Mt 24.21), but through it all Christ will keep his people safe because he has not only made a promise, he has paid the price that guarantees it will be so.