Rev. Slopsema is pastor of First Protestant Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. This Meditation is the text of the pre-synodical sermon preached by Rev. Slopsema on June 9, 2003.
And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
Jesus was with His disciples in Caesarea Philippi. Jesus asked them, “Whom do men say that I the Son of man am?” In response the disciples informed Him, “Some say that thou art John the Baptist; some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” When Jesus asked who they thought He was, Peter speaking for the group quickly responded, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
To this, Jesus had three related things to say. First, flesh and blood had not revealed the truth of this confession to Peter and the apostles, but Jesus’ Father in heaven. Secondly, upon the rock of this confession Jesus would build His church. Finally, He would give to Peter and the apostles the keys of the kingdom.
Our concern is with the statement of Jesus that He will build His church upon the rock of Peter’s confession.
This is a remarkable statement in light of what had just happened. From the Gospel accounts we learn that Jesus’ Galilean ministry had just collapsed. As a result of the miracle of the feeding of the 5,000, the citizens of Capernaum were about to take Jesus by force and make Him their king. But the next day, after Jesus explained that He had come to bring heavenly and not earthly bread, the people followed Him no more. In spite of this, Jesus indicated that He would build His church.
This truth is a great encouragement and comfort to us. As synod we are very much concerned with the welfare of the church, and in particular the PRC. There is much that threatens the church and that threatens our churches. From a human point of view, the future of the church looks very bleak. How comforting are the words of Jesus, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” In the confidence of these words of Jesus Christ we must do our work at synod.
I will build my church!
What is the church? From the Greek word for church we get our word “ecclesiastical.” The word means “called out.” The church is the number of those called out. As the gospel is preached throughout the world, all men are called to repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. Often this call falls on deaf ears. However, when the call comes to the ears of the elect of God, it is made effective by the inner working of the Holy Spirit, so that they are sovereignly and irresistibly brought out of the darkness of sin and death into the light of faith and salvation. The church is the number or gathering of the elect called effectively to faith in Jesus Christ.
Jesus calls this church His church. The church belongs to Jesus Christ. This is because its members belong to Him. As the name “church” suggests, the church is not a number of buildings or committees. It is not first of all an organization. The church is the gathering of the elect that are called out of darkness into the light of God’s salvation. These belong to Jesus Christ. They belong to Jesus because God eternally gave them to Jesus to save. They belong to Jesus also because Jesus purchased them with His own blood. Synod must bear this in mind in its deliberations. The church does not belong to the synod, or to any member of the synod, to do with as he wishes. The church belongs to Christ. The decisions synod makes must be made with a view to what serves the welfare of Christ’s church.
Jesus speaks of building His church. We must be very careful to understand what constitutes the building of the church. Contrary to the thinking of some, the building of the church does not consist in erecting large and beautiful buildings in which to worship. Nor does it consist in slick tactics that draw large crowds and quickly fill the membership roles of the church with people who know very little of Christ and are less dedicated to His service. Nor does building the church mean gaining world recognition for the church.
The building of the church consists rather in the gathering of the church through the call of the gospel. The church is the number or gathering of those who are “called out.” Whenever anyone is effectively called out of the darkness of unbelief into the light of faith and salvation, he becomes a living member of the church. This is the building of the church.
The building of the church also consists of the spiritual growth and maturity of her members. After being called to faith and salvation, the believer must grow in grace and knowledge. This is often spoken of as building up the members of the church. This is really the building of the church.
Jesus asserts that the building of the church is His work. This is true in that it is Jesus who calls His people out of darkness into the light of faith and salvation. He does this in every age and out of every nation. It is Jesus who also builds up each saint spiritually so that he grows in grace and knowledge. Jesus does this in the power of His death and resurrection.
However, Jesus builds His church by the use of means. He uses primarily the preaching of the gospel. In I Corinthians 3:10 Paul indicated that he had laid the foundation of the church of Corinth and that others were building on that foundation. This took place through the preaching. When we as church preach the gospel, we too are building the church. Better yet, Christ is building His church through us. Jesus also uses the sacraments to build His church. And He uses the witness and the fellowship of the saints. These are exactly the matters with which this synod will be dealing. Most of synod’s work centers on the preaching of the gospel as it deals with the work of its denominational mission committees and seminary. Even the committee for contact with other churches is focused on these matters. As synod deals with these matters, it must be conscious of their importance. These are the very things Jesus uses to build His church. Let them be handled with care!
Jesus builds His church upon a foundation. Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church.
This rock is not Peter personally, the successors of whom are the popes, as the Roman Catholic Church claims.
The rock upon which Jesus builds His church is the confession Peter had just made, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. What a confession! This is a confession that Jesus is the very Son of God, come into our flesh. As the Son of God in human flesh, He is also the Christ, the Anointed One, ordained by God to be His Prophet, Priest, and King. This is the heart of the gospel of salvation. All the truths of salvation are implied in that statement. Jesus’ atoning death, His and our resurrection to life, His exaltation into heaven to bring us our salvation — all these are implied in this great truth, that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. The confession of this truth makes of Peter and the disciples the rock upon which Jesus will build His church.
However, this rock is also, in some sense, Peter. There is obviously a play on words here. The name “Peter” does mean rock. Peter therefore is somehow connected to the rock that serves as the foundation of the church. He is not the foundation personally but by reason of his office. Peter and the other disciples would be given the office of apostle. As apostles they wou1d be the vehicles of divine revelation through whom Christ would more fully reveal the truth of Peter’s confession. In that sense Peter is also the foundation.
This has a great deal to say to us as we busy ourselves in the Lord’s work of building His church. The one and only foundation of the church is the confession of the truth of Scripture as it centers in Jesus being the Christ, the Son of the living God. Into this truth the Spirit has led the church throughout the ages. This truth is beautifully set forth in our Reformed creeds. Only when we maintain and proclaim that truth are we employed in building the church. Many bring words of human wisdom and understanding. They also build great things. But they do not build the church. This is because they are building on the wrong foundation. We build the church of Christ only as we build on the foundation of the truth of Scripture. Synod must be careful to promote and maintain the truth in all its deliberations.
And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
The gates of hell refer to that which storms out of the gates of hell to destroy the church. This is the Devil and his host of fallen demons. They will, if possible, tear down what has already been built up. They also seek to prevent any future building of the church. They seek to accomplish this by means of false doctrine, which undermines the very foundation of the church. They resort to persecution. They seek to lure the members of the church away from Christ by the pleasures of sin. If possible they bring dissension into the church.
To use the words of Jesus here, at times it appears as though they will prevail against the church. To “prevail against” means to overpower, to destroy, and to overcome through superior strength. We may be inclined to wonder if indeed the gates of hell will prevail against the church when we look at the apostasy in the church, the declining numbers attending church, the temptations and obstacles we face and will face. But Jesus gives us a glorious assurance. He will build His church. And the gates of hell shall not prevail against the church.
Jesus can give us this assurance exactly because He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. As the Christ, the Son of God, He has atoned for sin at the cross. As Christ, the Son of the living God, He has also been exalted into glory at the right hand of power. Indeed, Jesus will build His church.
In that assurance let us be busy in the Lord’s work of building the church.