Updated: Apr 4
Matthew 16: 13-18 “When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, ‘who do people say the Son of Man is?’ They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah’ and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’ ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘who do you say I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. 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."
In Israel we visited Caesarea Philippi, where the Gentiles lived away from Jewish settlements during the time of Jesus. This was a place of pagan worship to a god known as Pan (where the words ‘panic’ and ‘Pantheon’ are derived from). A cave in this area known as The Gates of Hades was a central place of pagan worship, and a spring inside of it is one of the sources of the Jordan river along with other springs.
Back in that era, in worship of this Greek mythological god Pan, pagans offered human and animal sacrifices, which were thrown down into a chasm inside the cave where the stream originated. If blood was seen to be mixed in with the water flowing out from the cave, they believed that their god was pleased with the sacrifice. Vile sexual acts were committed near The Gates of Hades and were considered part of the worship of this pagan god.
Since Jesus needed to get away from the Jewish leaders who plotted to kill him, and for relief from the crowds that followed Him around now that He was teaching and performing miracles publicly, He chose to take His disciples to Caesarea Philippi. In Matthew 16 we read the account of Jesus having a vitally important conversation with His disciples while He used this striking backdrop of pagan worship to give a powerful, visual contrast by standing right beside the mouth of “the Gates of Hades.” Jesus asks them who they say He is. Peter acts as the spokesperson for the disciples and says Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God. Jesus affirms this as divine revelation given to them through His Heavenly Father.
It is here in this moment that Christ confirms He is the promised Messiah the Jews had been waiting for throughout so many generations, and consequently reveals He is going to build “His Church”. He calls Peter the “Rock” (using the word Petros, which is Greek for a moveable rock/stone), and then refers to Himself as Petra (which also means “rock” but has a much larger, fixed, and unmovable quality to it). He’s going to build the church upon Himself, the immoveable rock, also known as the capstone or cornerstone (See Psalm 118:22, Ephesians 2:19-22, I Peter 2:6-7). He then assures them that evil (even as strong as pagan immorality) is not going to be stronger than the church He builds.
This requires an examination of what “church” actually means. It’s not a particular denomination of Christianity or a physical place of worship that Jesus is talking about. “The church” is comprised of true worshippers of Christ who know and openly declare that He is the Messiah, Emmanuel, God with us, come to redeem sinners from the eternal consequences of their sin. They follow Him by first acknowledging their sinfulness in light of His holiness, turning away from their sin in repentance, accepting His sacrifice on the cross as payment for the sin debt they owe God, and then by pursuing HIS Truth and obeying His Word.
All believers then are to be involved in building the church through their allegiance to Christ and through the obedience in their lives to His teaching, but God makes it clear that HE will build His church. MAN does NOT build the church. We might build what we call a church building, but it is Christ Himself who builds the church of believers.
This can be a hopeful passage of encouragement for those in the ministry. The pressure comes off the servant, even though they have responsibility to handle the Word of Truth accurately and to share the gospel, to shepherd a group of believers well, and to live in congruency with their faith. It’s ultimately God who will “build”. The minister just needs to obey Christ in whatever God calls that servant to do, and He will take care of the results. There is no force strong enough to overcome the power of God, so as the world--full of evil--seeks in every conceivable way to destroy the church (from within and without), it is not as strong as the power of Jesus that actually builds and sustains the true church.
When looking at our churches today we can easily find fault. We are ‘wounded’ and we are ‘wounders’. We wound one another, we wound others outside the church, and we wound Christ and His reputation. No wonder outsiders call us hypocrites if all they look at are imperfect, sinful people. But not all who call themselves Christians are hypocrites because of their imperfection. Our marred perfection humbles us to make us more clearly in need of the Savior, is used to refine our hearts and our character as we live in relationship with other believers, gives us the opportunity to forgive as Christ forgave us, and teaches us to extend grace to others.
There has never been a golden age of “the church”. We have been fraught with issues ever since the very beginning of the church era, such as false teachers/teachings, quarreling, divisions, hypocrisy, worldliness, abuse, immorality, legalism, and many other evidences that “the church” is far from perfect. But God says HE is going to build it and evil will not prevail when it is all said and done. He’s going to sift out the “sheep from the goats”, claiming those as His own who have hearts that align with His heart (Matt. 25:31-46).
As we piled back onto the tour bus, I felt like I had a deeper understanding of the church, how it all began, and where it will end up as it not only weathers the evil through the centuries, but seeks a continuous building process, centered on THE Rock…the Cornerstone. It seems Christ wanted us to compare Him to the false, man-made created gods of this world along with the evil that surrounds false worship, and then to determine who we believe He is. If we find Him to be the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, then we need to commit our lives to working alongside Him as He builds His church through us and the gifts that He gives us. We may come against evil in a variety of forms, but His power will prove stronger in the overall outcome, prevailing in the end.