(Read Matthew 16:13-20; Acts 2:37-41, 47)
In this chapter, Matthew 16, we have the first reference to the church of Christ; and it comes in here very definitely and distinctly as something fresh and new in the ways of God, while its special character rests upon this — that the Lord Jesus Christ was rejected by His earthly people to whom He came. He had made Himself known to the Jews as the One Who was promised of old. He had proved by many wonders and signs that He was the Sent One of Jehovah, but the heart of God's earthly people had no care for their Deliverer. He was not one that pleased them, nor did they think that He would ever please them, and consequently they rejected Him. It appeared, therefore, that God's purposes for blessing to this world had received a check from those whom we might suppose would be the very last to have hindered the workings of God for their blessing. If there was any nation that had received favours from God it was the nation of Israel, and yet they were the ones who stood out against the Messiah, and refused Him.
It is at this point in the Gospel that we have the first intimation that God would not be thwarted in His purpose, and that the meek and lowly Man of Nazareth had still something before His heart, something that His hands would accomplish. If the national assembly of Jehovah refused Him, He would nevertheless have His own special company; and the assembly He would build would be invincible and impregnable. The forces of hostility by man and by the unseen world should not prevail against His church.
But it is of the utmost significance that the declaration of the Lord Jesus with regard to the foundation of His church was announced at that juncture in the life-service of our Lord Jesus Christ when it was clear to Him, as it was clear to His Father in heaven, that Israel would not have Him; and therefore it was that He said to Peter, "I will build My church."
Moreover, the announcement was associated with the confession of the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ as the Son of the living God. It would be instructive to go through the whole Gospel of Matthew up to this point and see how the enmity of the hearts of God's people against the Lord Jesus grew from day to day, as it were. His gracious ministry produced no yielding effect upon their hearts. There was no softening; their hearts only grew harder. There is, however, enough in this chapter itself to show us what was really working in the hearts of these persons.
Seeking a Sign
The chapter opens with the fact that the Pharisees and the Sadducees came to the Lord, and, not for the first time, asked Him for a sign from heaven. If you ponder for a moment you will see to what heights their unbelief had reached; for was not the Lord Jesus Christ Himself God's appointed sign that His promises made in the Old Testament were fulfilled? When the announcement of His birth was made over the plains of Bethlehem, what was the heavenly message to the shepherds? They were to go to the manger, and, said the angel, "This is the sign to you" — the sign of the Messiah according to the prophecy of Isaiah to Ahaz (Isa. 7:14) — "ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling-clothes." That blessed, holy Babe, conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin; was God's Son from heaven, and the time for the promised blessing had now come.
The Deliverer Himself was present, and the man who had faith in his heart looked at the Babe wrapped in swaddling-clothes, and by his faith saw the Saviour. Simeon said, "Lord, now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace . . . for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation." He saw God's side of it. Years passed; the Lord Jesus grew to manhood; He came forth from Nazareth to fulfil His ministry. The Father from heaven said at the banks of Jordan, "This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased." The Lord Jesus, by His marvellous humility as well as by the wonders of His power, showed that He was God's Servant, there to bless them by saving them from their sins (Acts 3:26, R.V.). He Himself was the "sign" predicted by Isaiah.
Now the leaders of the people come to Him, and say, "Show us a sign from heaven." What did their request mean? That they disbelieved all that up to that point the Lord had shown Himself to be. They still wanted a sign from heaven, and the Lord told them that no sign should be given them except that of the prophet Jonah. As Jonah disappeared from Israel and went to the Gentiles, so the Lord Jesus Christ would vanish from the ken of His natural earthly people. He would go into heaven; He would preach the gospel to the Gentiles also; and the Jews would see Him no more until they said, "Blessed is He that cometh in the name of Jehovah."
It is thus shown in the chapter that the Lord Jesus Christ was rejected in the hearts of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. There that poisonous leaven of disbelief was working. Their teaching was vitiated by their denial of the Christ, the Son of the living God. What they taught the people was something to poison and destroy their souls. Why? Because they disbelieved the Messiah. They refused to accept the Lord Jesus Christ, Who had come to them that they might have life.
Now, friends, let us never forget that the great touch-stone of the ministry of truth is the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ. The man who is not faithful to the glory and grace of our Lord Jesus Christ may speak words intended to do you good, and edify your souls, but if they contain what is derogatory to His Holy Name, however profound his teaching may be, however powerful and passionate his speech, however clever and attractive his sentences, they will be but as leaven to your souls, communicating the corruption of evil to your heart. "Beware", the Lord said, "of the leaven of the Pharisees and of the Sadducees." They hated and despised Him, and made up their minds that He must die; they would not have Him to reign over them.
But there were others who would not receive Him as the Christ; and the Lord spoke to His disciples, asking them what was the popular opinion about Himself. What did men in general say about Him? What did they say about Him in the streets and in the market-places? What was the opinion of the common people — those who "heard Him gladly"? They said something about Him not evil, not positively dishonouring to His name, and yet in essence they, too, detracted from His glory. Some said, He was John the Baptist, some that He was Elias, Jeremias, one of the prophets perhaps; but they evidently thought He was a good man, a man who would bring them some words from God.
The Lord does not in this narrative condemn this luke-warmness, but such vague opinions would not do for His church, for His assembly; He does not accept these popular notions. The good seed of the word of the kingdom had been sown, and what had that soil produced? Not the fruit of righteousness and holiness, of sound, wholesome words that spoke well of Christ. They only said, "John the Baptist, Elias, Jeremias, or one of the prophets." The fruit was evil fruit. The good seed of His sowing had not been everywhere fruitful, because of the badness of the soil. There was no reception in the heart of the people for the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Christ, the Son of the living God.
Oh, beloved friends, cannot you in these questions of the Lord see this blessed Teacher come from God, looking round amongst men; and what is He searching for? Hearts that love Him, hearts that have received the knowledge of Himself as the Sent One from God. And will it satisfy His loving heart if a man says of Him that He is but one of the prophets? Has He come all the way from heaven to receive only that from men?
And does He not also look today into our hearts? Is not His heart towards us, seeking to know from us what we think of Him? It is not what doctrines we hold, it is not what creed we confess, but what love, what allegiance of heart there is for Himself. The Lord Jesus Christ stands today as He stood of old on the borders of Caesarea Philippi, the rejected Man. He was the Sent One from God, but man had no heart for Him. And as He asked for hearts, so He asks still. What is your response, and what is mine, to the seeking of the Lord Jesus Christ?
The Son of the Living God
The Lord then turned to His own disciples, His apostles, those who had companied with Him in the days of His ministry, who had learned, but so slowly and dully, that He was being rejected. Now the Lord put the question to them that they might confess with their mouths what was in their hearts concerning Him. "Who say ye that I am?" It was a personal challenge. The word of the Lord Jesus Christ came direct to their hearts, bringing them face to face with Himself. "What do you think of Me?" And Peter answered. Peter was often the foremost with his tongue, but here he speaks, not because he was an impulsive man, not because his affections, as it were, were so near his mouth and so ready to be expressed in words; but he speaks because of a constraining power within him. He has received a revelation from the Father in heaven concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, his Teacher and Lord.
The Lord tells us this, but otherwise we need not have doubted it.. For what human heart could conceive rightly of the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ? What human eyes could look upon that Man of sorrows Who was acquainted with grief, and say, "There is the Son of God — the Son of the living God"? It was not the discernment of flesh and blood. The wise men, the noble men of the world, all failed to make such a confession. The wisdom of the world was nonplussed when they saw Jesus Christ. They could not see the glory of God's Son in that lowly Man.
And I call upon you for faithfulness to the Lord Jesus Christ now. The name of the Lord Jesus Christ has been declared in this world for centuries, and men have professed some sort of outward allegiance to that name, but where are the hearts that are absolutely true to Christ in His person and in His glory? Who are they that believe from the very bottom of their hearts that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God? This confession was not a deduction of logic; it was not something that sprang from Peter's own mind or Peter's own feelings, but it was an utterance absolutely true, and appropriate to the occasion because the Father in heaven had made it known to the apostle.
We do not know, but it is not at all likely that Peter was at the Jordan when from heaven came the voice of the Father, saying, "This is My beloved Son, in Whom I am well pleased." That was a voice specially for John, because John said himself, "He that sent me to baptize with water, the same said unto me, Upon Whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending, and remaining on Him, the same is He Who baptizeth with the Holy Ghost. And I saw — and I saw, and bare record that this is the Son of God" (John 1:31-34).
But the declaration by Peter was a special and definite revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ in His glory as not only the Sent One, the Christ, the Anointed One, but the Son of the living God. It is needful in a day of rejection that there shall be witnesses to the essential glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. And God always finds them. He found one here; He found Peter, and revealed to him the truth concerning His Son. What is hidden from the wise and prudent is revealed by the Father to babes (Matt. 11:25).
And is it not so today? The spirit of Antichrist is even now abroad; it is common for men in Christendom to deny that Jesus is the Christ, though John says definitely that such a one is a liar. Moreover, there is not only the denial that Jesus is the Anointed of God, but men also deny the Father and the Son. This spirit of error, the spirit of Antichrist, is now working amongst men (John 2:18-22). By and by, on the removal of the church, that habitation of the Holy Spirit and bulwark against the spirit of foul and poisonous error, the salt of the earth having gone, then the great evil of antichristian doctrine will spread unhinderedly over the hearts of men, and how terrible and appalling the state of the world will be! How quickly the corruption will spread when the salt is removed! Let us beware of anything in our hearts or associations that is derogatory to the person of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The Lord is worthy of the confession Peter gave, that typical churchman, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." And let me say that this typical confession is not something that we are called to say to one another. I might say to you — and I might be a deceiver — I might say to you, "I believe in the Christ, the Son of the living God," and in my deceitful heart and mind, I might have reserved some thought, some prejudice, some bias against the full glory of the Lord Jesus Christ that you would not perceive. What we say to one another, we are rightly judged by, because we are counselled to judge one another by words and actions. But Peter's statement was made to the Lord Jesus Christ. And He looks for a similar acknowledgment from you now. He seeks that you should, from your heart, in His presence, looking Him in the face, say, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God."
It is a poor thing to have a creed in one's memory, and to make the confession of our belief a mere memorized recital of good words, sound words, however right and proper the formulas may be. No, when you come into the church where Christ is All-and-in-all, you have to do with Him; you have to do with Him Who is the Truth, and He wants the truth from you. He desires "truth in the inward parts." Let us therefore challenge ourselves whether we can say to Him, "Oh, Lord, I know very little, but I do believe in my very soul that Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God."
This is the way to be blessed in the eyes of the Lord. "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona." Oh, how good and sweet the apostle's words were to our Lord, when men were saying, "Show us a sign from heaven. Show us something we can rest upon, something really from heaven." That wicked and adulterous generation had made up their minds to slaughter Him, and their murderous intent was before the eyes of the Lord Jesus. While those who were led by the leaders thought He was someone good, a man such as there had been many a time before in the Jewish history, in truth there is but one good man, and He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Peter said, "Thou, Jesus of Nazareth, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." There came thus to the Lord Jesus Christ a refreshing draught in His service. He had not laboured altogether in vain. He had not spent His strength entirely for naught. Here was some fruit that was sweet to His taste. This man had made this noble and true confession in the ears of others as well as in the ears of the Lord Himself. "Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven." Is it not beautiful to see the care of the Father, if I may venture to use the word, for the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ? "The Father loveth the Son, and hath given all things into His hands." He knew the worth of His blessed Son, and
He saw men in this world turn away from that Son; and so He opened the eyes and heart and lips of this man to speak faithfully and to speak the truth concerning His Sent One. And so in his confession of Christ Simon was truly a blessed man, favoured of God the Father.
The New Building
But the Lord Himself had something now to say: "I also say unto thee." We have the Father's testimony to Peter concerning the Son, and we also have the Son's saying to Peter concerning the church: "I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of hell (hades) shall not prevail against it."
What was the rock upon which He would build His church? "Thou art Peter", he said. The explanation has often been made that Peter was but a stone in the edifice, as his new name means, and he could not be the foundation of solid rock on which the church would be built. The rock was the truth of the confession that Christ is the Son of the living God.
The Lord now gives Simon his new name, that spiritual name that He had conferred upon him at His first interview with him. His new name was Peter. It is the name which was his in his relationship to the Lord Jesus Christ. When a man learns the truth about the Lord Jesus Christ he enters a new world entirely, and becomes a new person, and the Lord gave the new name to Simon Bar-jona to signify the new place that he had taken as His confessor. Peter or Cephas was his new name from the first (John 1:42); now he had spoken in the character of that name.
Peter had given utterance to what the Father had communicated to him about His Son, the truth of His Person. But the world and the Jewish nation stood apart from this revelation by denying this truth. They were opposed to the Lord Jesus Christ. They would not have Him. He was the Stone which the builders rejected. But the Father had revealed to Peter another foundation altogether, which was of the nature of solid rock, something which could not be overthrown by floods and tempests and storms and man's evil devices.. It would stand firm and true for ever. Why so? Everything connected with the old dispensation, with the Jewish nation, with the earthly promises, had hitherto (so far as could be seen outwardly) rested upon man — man's faithfulness and man's steadiness and man's reliability; and hitherto all had failed.
Find from the Old Testament something upon which failure is not written. From Genesis to Malachi the whole testimony of Israel is a complete failure. Everything set up for trial broke down absolutely; and the Jewish nation, which was called into its special position for the particular purpose of upholding the paramount claim of the Holy Name of God as the sole Person to be worshipped, had fallen into gross idolatry, and abused the privileged position that God had given it.
The New Foundation
But the Lord Jesus Christ says here to Peter, "There is now a new foundation, a solid rock"; and that rock is the Father's revelation that He has sent somebody upon Whom He can rely; and that someone is the Lord Jesus Christ Himself, the Son of the living God. All the disciples on the Lake of Gennesaret, in an earlier chapter, confessed Him as the Son of God, and so subsequently did Martha, the sister of Mary and Lazarus. These confessed Him as the Son of God, as the Jewish remnant will do by-and-by, having been taught to do so in the Old Testament (Ps. 2:7); but here was something significant — the Son of the living God. His was a life over which no power, no living power, could prevail. The gates of Hades shall not prevail against this foundation, because the foundation is the Son of the living God.
I think that I am perhaps saying things quite familiar to most of us here, but while they may be familiar even to all, have we all grasped and truly grasped the full significance of this truth? We learn from this verse that the church of God, which has such a perplexing appearance as we look upon its outward testimony in the world, rests upon this solid foundation, Christ Himself, the Son of the living God.
Here we can find perfect satisfaction. There are many people who are afraid lest this Ark of God should come to grief; and they put out their hands, to steady it. But the church of God is safe and secure for one sole and sufficient reason, and that is because it depends upon the Lord Jesus Christ in His personal glory; and nothing can triumph over Him. It is for you and me, who are associated with that church, to confess Him with our hearts and with our lips, and to let the truth marking our actions and our associations be that we know and believe the Christ, the Son of the living God.
"Upon this rock", the Lord says, "I will build My church." He would do it; it was then a future thing. But beforehand He makes the announcement, and He makes the announcement in associations of the Gospel history that we do well to mark. There is an indication that events in His ministry had come to a climax; and consequently the Lord said, "I will build My church," to His faithful disciple, the one who was ready to scent danger whenever it was coming, and put out his sword when anything was against his Master. It was on the confession through Peter's mouth that the truth was made clear as to the formation of the church; and further, that the gates of Hades should not prevail against it.
This feature of the church when compared with God's earthly kingdom is quite new. Where is David, the man after God's own heart, in his glory? His sepulchre is with us today; the gates of Hades had prevailed over the king. Solomon in all his glory and wisdom, where is he? His sepulchre also is with us today; the gates of Hades had prevailed. All the great ones of the Old Testament had passed away. The kingdom of Israel as it appeared in its glory had passed away; the gates of the grave had triumphed over even the faithful ones of Old Testament times.
But with regard to the church, the Lord declared it should not be so; and that for a very simple reason, which is made clear later on. It was because of the peculiar glory and blessing that belong to the church of Christ in virtue of its foundation upon His death and resurrection. This special privilege does not depend upon the length of our lives in this world. It does not depend upon our living even for a thousand years or more. "The gates of hell" can do nothing to frustrate the peculiar blessing of the church of Christ, because the hopes of the church are heavenly, and the glorious fruition of every purpose connected with the church is in heaven, which is utterly beyond the domain of death and Hades.
So the heavenly character of the church of Christ is contained here in embryonic phrase. The Lord was going to build His church, His own peculiar church. He had spoken before in the way of parable (Matt. xiii) of that which was peculiar or special to Him. The pearl has to be His own pearl; He will sell all so that the treasure in the field may be His; and the bride, a later figure of the church, was to be His bride. Here He says, "I will build My church." And in the fact of being personally possessed by Christ we have an inexpressibly beautiful and touching feature of the church. The church of Christ is the object and scene, if I may use the word, of the display of Christ's affections, the exercise of His love, of His brooding love over His church: "Christ loved the church, and gave Himself for it."
In the hour of His rejection, the Lord turns, as it were, to that which was to be His, His very own, His peculiar treasure: "I will build My church." Israel may be taken away from Him. The earthly inheritance may not come, but "I love My church, and the first thing that I will do, the first object that I will bring into My glory when the time comes shall be My church, the church which I will build." The building was soon begun. The building is still going on. The building presently will be completed; and then the church will stand before the Lord in its beauty, a beauty of which the world does not dream, a beauty that the world cannot appreciate, and a beauty that only Christ can know. It is the Bridegroom Who knows the beauty of the bride. It is Christ Who will know and enjoy the beauty of the church, and so will every one around Him in the day of glory.
"I will build My church. I will build upon this foundation those that confess Me; those who will say, 'Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God' when the world is against Me, when the religious world and the professing church are against Me; those who are not ashamed to own Me before men — they shall constitute My church, which shall be for Me and with Me in the day of My glory."
The Lord also said, particularly to Peter with regard. to the kingdom of heaven, "I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven", and so on. The promise meant that administration in earthly things was committed to him. The Lord goes back to the term, "kingdom of heaven", and Peter was to bind and loose in earthly matters. We find in the Acts that he did so personally in Jerusalem and Caesarea.
Let us now look very briefly at the verses read in the Acts. There we see that the Lord had gone on high, and that having ascended into heaven, He had sent down the Holy Spirit. It was known in Jerusalem by things that men saw and heard that there had been this spiritual visitation from God. The Holy Spirit Himself had come, and men were speaking by His power, and men knew that it was the power of the Holy Spirit, not because of the sound of a rushing mighty wind that they heard, not because they saw tongues of fire sit on this one and that one, but they knew the Holy Spirit was speaking to them because the words of Peter entered their hearts and consciences and gave them to feel that they were guilty men.
And who could break down the human will that had so stubbornly set itself to resist the Lord Jesus Christ and to crucify and slay Him? There was no power but one; it was the power of the Holy Spirit. It came as a fire, and it melted, as it were, the iron barriers of unbelief raised against our Lord Jesus Christ; and men felt that it was verily true that Jesus Christ Whom they crucified had now been exalted at the right hand of God. He was there in heaven, and this thing in Jerusalem was His doing by the Holy Spirit.
It was at the first a limited company that received the gift of the Holy Spirit, but Peter spoke in the temple-courts, and his words had effect. Many believed and were baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and they were brought out of that "untoward generation"; and the result of his preaching was that to the little company of believers there were added three thousand souls in one day. The Lord was building His church, as He had said to Peter He would do.
You do not find a parallel in the past history of Jerusalem. You do not find a sudden influx of thousands into the nation of Israel. There was nothing like this that went outside the earthly people and brought a company of strangers into their midst. But the very first act of the Holy Spirit was to work in men's hearts, and three thousand, many times the number of the original company, were added to their number. This addition was not due to the striking eloquence of Peter or to anything particularly powerful or attractive in the company of the professors of the Lord Jesus Christ; it was entirely due to the power of the Holy Spirit.
The Lord Jesus Christ, the exalted Christ, the Son of the living God, had sent down the Holy Spirit, and the Lord Himself by that Spirit was working there in Jerusalem, where He had been crucified, and calling out from those crowds of His betrayers and murderers those who should form His church. Oh, what grace on His part! What love! Again, beloved friends, we see, as it were, those tears when He looked upon the guilty city, and said, "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not Here the Lord gathers three thousand by the power of His Holy Spirit into that new assembly which He was forming. The work was to begin there by the preaching of repentance and the remission of sins (Luke 24:47), for this was the way in which He began building the new habitation of God through the Spirit.
We do not get the definite word "church" in this chapter, except in our Authorized Version. This actual designation should not be there, but the word occurs soon after (Acts 5:11).
What we find here is that these people who were converted and baptised were brought together. They formed a new company, and were thereby separated altogether from everyone else in Jerusalem. The feature that distinguished them was fidelity and allegiance to the Christ, Who was crucified in Jerusalem and Who was now exalted in glory. They became part of the church. They were built into that spiritual edifice in this world upon which the Lord still has His eye, and which He is still constructing. He is the Master-Workman; he is the Architect, the Designer; but He is the great Workman, Who never rests. His disciples went forth, and preached everywhere, but the Lord was working with them (Mark 16:20). And here at the end of this chapter we read that the Lord added daily such as should be saved.
Still Being Built
Beloved friends, this work is going on still. The church is being formed, but the great secret that we must hold fast is that it is the Lord Who is building. It is His work. There is no human power able to do it; no skillful preacher can bring persons into that church. It is the Lord's own work. It is He Who calls, for the church, as the original word, ecclesia, implies, is composed of the "called-out" ones. His voice reaches this one and another one; there is a response, and they come, not only to Him, but also to one another. They are brought into a new union, a new association which has living connection with the Son of the living God. Do you appreciate and value this truth?
Oh, if we could really lay hold of it as something that is so solidly true that nothing can alter it! No power of error or deceit can undo what the Lord does. If one is brought into His church in this world, that one will be in His church in glory, that one will share the love and glory of Christ in the day when He is no longer the rejected One, but comes in His majesty and power, comes to be wondered at, comes to be admired in those that believe. Then, when we are with Him in that day of manifested glory, when as part of the church we consciously realise that glory, we shall realise it to be His glory. We shall say, "Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us, but unto Thee be the glory." How good it would be if we could learn to say it now! It is in substance the confession of the church: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." Give Him then this glory. Because He is the Christ, the Son of the living God, we can give Him no higher praise than this. He is the Super-eminent One, and surely we love to say so, and to say so here in this world where He is disowned. Our neighbours, our friends, sometimes our dearest friends, wound us because they will not own Him; they, alas, despise the One we love and adore.
We need to abide true to our absent Lord. Let us beware lest our deceitful hearts set up anything as an idol in the place of the Christ, the Son of the living God. So may we abide with the Lord's help faithful to Him Who is the Head of His body, the church.