Let me begin by saying what the biblical church is not. First, the church in the New Testament—which serves as our picture for the church age—is not a social club. It is not a place to come and be entertained. Neither is it an outpost for an official political party. While functionally it has sociopolitical structures and intents, it is never commanded to impose itself governmentally on the world.
The church, rather, functions as a model revealing the principles of the kingdom. The church is a community of individuals spiritually linked together with the purpose of influencing culture and reflecting the values of the kingdom of God through its members into the broader society.
The church is to function as a familial community with an emphasis on unity. By the biblical church, I am referring to the church that Jesus Christ established that is to be reflected or modeled through the local gathering of believers, a local assembly, as defined shortly before the end of His earthly ministry (see Matt. 16:18–19).
Several key verses in this chapter are very important for us to look at in order to understand who we are as a church and what we do. In Matthew 16, we begin by reading that Jesus had just asked His disciples an important question. He asked them to tell Him who people were saying that He was. Everyone offered flattering answers in reply. Some said that He was Elijah while others said Jeremiah or a prophet. While all were compliments, all were wrong. Then Jesus turned to His disciples and asked, “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15).
It isn’t evident in the English translation, but in the Greek text we discover that when Jesus asks, “Who do you say that I am,” the “you” is plural. In Texas, we’d say, “Who do y’all say that I am?” The plural form of the word “you” reveals to us that Jesus is not just asking this question to Peter, who subsequently offered an answer. Rather, this is a question to the group as a whole.
When Peter answered, he answered representatively as a leader of the disciples. One way we know Peter is a leader is because whenever we see a list of the names of the disciples in the gospels, Peter is always listed first. He is a natural spokesperson both in personality and position. Peter doesn’t have the paralysis of analysis. He speaks his mind and offers Jesus the collective answer, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16).
Jesus responds by affirming him and changing his name, which had been Simon Barjona, to Peter—which means “a stone.” He continues by saying, “And upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (Matt. 16:18).
Several important principles are given to us in this passage. First, the biblical church is made up of many interlinking pieces. Once the disciples individually recognized and agreed upon who Jesus was, they were ready to come together and be the church. This is critical because Christ is both the foundation and the cornerstone of the church (see 1 Cor. 3:11; Eph. 2:20–22). Once He saw that they understood who He was, Jesus esteemed their commitment to His identity by empowering them to carry out His work. He did this because their reply showed Him that they were a group of individuals who could jointly make an impact on society, which is exactly what they have done. Their impact has left a legacy that is still alive today.
“Unity is an essential element used by God through which He manifests His power and reveals His glory.”
What we sometimes do when looking at this passage, though, is make the mistake of interpreting Christ’s statement as meaning that He is building His church on one man: Peter. However, the word Jesus used for Peter was the Greek word petros. It indicated a single stone that can be easily thrown. That is not the word Jesus used for “rock.”
Jesus used the Greek word petra indicative of a mass—or cliff—of rocks that is comprised of something much larger than any individual rock. This mass of rocks interlinks individual rocks together to create a stronger whole. While there are a multitude of rocks in petra, they do not function as individual rocks, but are intimately joined together. The best exegete of the passage would have to be Peter himself. We see his interpretation in 1 Peter 2 where he says, “You also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house” (v. 5).
It is not insignificant that Christ described the church in this way. Unity is an essential element used by God through which He manifests His power and reveals His glory. Therefore, if we, as leaders and pastors of churches, are going to be “the church” that Jesus is building, we have no other choice but to embrace our call to biblical-based unity across racial, class, preferential, and denominational lines.
Jesus did not place option B or option C on the table. He did not say that He will build a black church over here, and a white church over there, and a Hispanic church over here, and a National Baptist church over there, and a Southern Baptist church over here, and a denominational church over there, and a nondenominational church over here. Jesus did not give us that option. When we limit ourselves to those options, we have perverted His definition of His church. Rather, we are all individual stones coming together to form a larger, more complete whole upon which Christ, serving as the foundation and cornerstone, will build His church (see Eph. 2:20–22).
Second, not only are we all interlinking parts to one church, but the biblical church also has a culture-influencing capacity. We learn this in Ephesians 2 when we look at the definition of the term church. Ecclesia, in common everyday Greek usage, originally referred to the land-holding citizens of the Greek city-state who had been summoned in order to establish the governance, guidelines, rules, and regulations for the broader citizenry. In other words, if you were a part of the ecclesia in the Greek societies, you were part of the governing council that legislated on behalf of the Greek population. Ecclesia wasn’t a place where you came to sing a song or hear a sermon. Ecclesia was the place where you came to legislate on behalf of the populace. The word is even used this way once in the New Testament (see Acts 19:39–41), though by then, it had come to mean, more broadly, any group of people who were gathered for a specific purpose that benefits society.
Most of the time when we use the term “church” today, we simply mean a place where people can go to find encouragement, teaching, and fellowship. However, while those things are important, when we limit ourselves to them, we have reduced the word from its intended culture-influencing meaning. To be a part of the church of Jesus Christ, as Jesus defined it, is to be a part of an intentional body tasked to enact heaven’s viewpoint and authority in the world’s society.
In the midst of a place of war and conflict, God has deposited an ecclesia: a group of people who have been called out to bring the governance of God into the relevant application and practice of mankind. If you do not realize this or act on this truth as a pastor, then you are falling short of your kingdom role and responsibility.
This culture-influencing role of the church is clearly evident in this passage, since what is resisting it are the “gates of hell,” which, in context, stand for the power of the evil one against which Christians strive. But the church purposefully brings God’s way of doing things to earth, instead of Satan’s way. This is reinforced by the fact that “keys” which are given provide access to heaven’s authority to be executed by the church on earth (see Matt. 16:19). Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father to legislate from heaven, and we sit in the heavenlies with Him (see Eph. 2:5–6). God often waits on us as a church body to see whether we are exercising our legitimate authority or not. This explains why God determines what He’s going to do from heaven in many cases by what He sees the church is doing in history and time on earth (see Eph. 3:10).
When the church settles for spiritual inspiration and information only, we wind up with temporal encouragement with little lasting transformation or cultural impact. The church is supposed to be where the values of eternity operate in history so that history sees what God looks like when heaven is operating on earth. The job of the church is not to adopt the culture, or to merely assess and analyze the culture, but to set heaven within the context of culture so that culture can see God at work in the midst of the conflicts of humanity as we develop kingdom disciples that penetrate the culture.
Third, the biblical church exists to advance the kingdom, not simply to defend it. Please notice the progressive nature of the language Jesus used. Jesus said that He is going to “build” His church. He did not say that He was going to stop hell. As mentioned in Matthew 16:18, “the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” The term used for our translation of “Hades” is one we often interpret as hell—that which references the forces of the underworld, lower region, and realm of the dead. Jesus declared that as He builds His church, the rulers of this underworld and lower region (the devil and his minions) will not overpower the church. Thus, it happens this way: as Christ builds His church, the inhabitants and rulers of hell see Him doing it. Hell does not like what Christ is doing, so hell tries to stop it. Jesus, and His church, is on the offensive. Hell is on the defensive.
“When the church settles for spiritual inspiration and information only, we wind up with temporal encouragement with little lasting transformation or cultural impact.”
However, for far too long, the church has operated on the defensive side of this battle. We’ve been reacting to the movements of hell rather than setting the pace of heaven. Jesus clearly says that the way you will know that your church is His church is that hell will be trying to stop it, and hell will be failing. The reverse of that is true as well. The way you will know that your church is not operating as Jesus’ church is that it will be only reacting to hell’s advances, and it will be failing to stop them.
Jesus said His church will be hewed together around a common vision and purpose, making it not only capable of withstanding the strongest oppositional forces on the planet —the gates of hell will not prevail—but also able to make a progressive impact. However, if the church is not joined together as one, the reverse of that will occur as well, because that is the way Christ has designed the church to function. Without unity within and between our churches today (without compromising truth), the gates of hell—Satan and his minions—will overpower and engulf us.
If hell is on the doorstep, in the lobby, or in the pulpit and the pew of the church—which many would argue that it is—it can only be the result of the body of Christ failing to join together across racial, class, and gender lines as a unified whole in pursuit of a kingdom agenda. We know this is true because Jesus made it clear that He would build His church in such a way—and when done His way, the gates of hell would not overpower it.
That doesn’t mean there is Christian uniformity, ignoring our different preferences in worship, music, preaching, fellowship, or even how long we want to meet together on a Sunday morning in what we call “church.” The kingdom of heaven where we will one day go as the bride of Christ will be wholly diverse (see Rev. 7:9); therefore, we ought not to try to strip ourselves of our unique differences now. Rather, we need to welcome God’s creative distinctions in such a way so as to make a stronger, more unified body in our land by joining church congregation and church congregation together, embracing an intentional strategy of edification through mutual service, thereby impacting not only our families and churches, but also our communities and nation, with the transforming power of Christ.
We must make the distinction between membership and fellowship. We can have fellowship with those who share the fundamentals of the faith, even if we can’t share membership due to stylistic, policy, or preferential differences. The key point is the level of visible unity will determine the level of our cultural impact.
If we could ever see the kingdom as God sees it, and if we could ever see each other as God sees us, designed to come together with a unified goal underneath His overarching agenda, then the world would have to deal with the strength of the church of Jesus Christ. Now the world merely needs to deal with this segment over here and that segment over there as we divide ourselves over preferences.
Fourth, the biblical church operates with full access to supreme authority and power. The next verse in Matthew 16 says, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). Jesus says He will give the church the “keys of the kingdom of heaven.” What do you do with keys? You gain access (see Isa. 22:22). Have you ever been in a hurry and you can’t find your keys? That means that you’re not going anywhere anytime soon. Or perhaps you are like me and you have a number of keys on your keychain, but you have forgotten what some of them unlock. Those keys are no longer of any benefit to you.
Jesus says the church He is building will have the keys to the kingdom of God, giving it the kingdom authority to bind and loose on earth based on its empowerment from heaven through proclaiming the gospel. The implications of this truth are staggering. If we could only grasp the potential of this reality, there is no end to the impact we, as pastors and leaders of the church, could have on our land and in the world.
Yet why are we not experiencing this power and authority in the church today? Because we are not operating in the way Jesus designed His church to function, according to His kingdom. We are operating according to “churchdom.” Therefore, we are trying to use our own church keys to unlock kingdom doors and finding they don’t open much of anything at all.
by Tony Evans
Concise Wisdom from a Pastoral Veteran The Kingdom Pastor’s Library is a new series that brings you a succinct, complete pastoral...
Sign up for learning delivered to your inbox weekly