This morning we are beginning a new sermon series that I have titled simply “Church Basics”. Over the course of the next 10-12 weeks we are going to answer some of the fundamental questions that many people have about the church. We are going to talk about what the church is, why it is important, what its purposes are, how it should operate, and so on. We will not cover every area of church doctrine during this series, but we do intend to address several of the most basic issues involving the church.
Let’s begin by defining the church. This definition will serve as the springboard for many of the topics that we will study over the next several weeks. Southern Baptists define the church as “an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers”. Each word in this definition carries significant meaning and we will examine each one individually as we dig deeper into church doctrine. We will begin with the last word of the phrase which is ‘believers”.
The church is made up of believers, but who exactly are these believers and what specifically do the believe in? To help us answer these questions, we must turn to the teachings of Jesus himself and discover when and upon what foundation the church originated. By discovering the basis upon which the church was established we can begin to gain a more complete understanding of what it is and who it consists of.
I. THE FUNDAMENTAL QUESTION OF THE CHURCH - Matthew 16:13-16
Jesus and his disciples withdrew from predominately Jewish territory and went to the pagan region of Caesarea Philippi, presumably to escape the large crowds that had been following them. Here Jesus could spend some alone time with the disciples and teach them in a more intimate setting. Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do the people say that I am?” and they respond with various answers such as “John the Baptist”, “Elijah”, “Jeremiah”, or “one of the prophets”. It is the testimony of the disciples, based upon these answers, that the people who had been following Jesus considered him to be a great teacher, a powerful miracle worker, and a dynamic prophet. While these are certainly wonderful accolades, they do not adequately express the truth and fullness of who Jesus is. They are woefully incomplete.
After hearing the disciples answers, Jesus modifies the question and asks them, “But who do you say that I am?” Notice that Jesus is posing this question to the entire group - not to one particular person, and therefore when Peter responds it is most likely that he is speaking on behalf of them all. Peter answers by proclaiming, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” He correctly identifies Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Savior of the world, and the anointed Son of God.
There is a profound difference between the answers to these two questions. The crowds believe Jesus to be a mere man of flesh and bone, while the disciples identify Him as divine. This same disparity still exists today. Thousands of people regard Jesus as one of the greatest religious teachers of all time. Many incorporate His teachings into their own religious views. They elevate Him in their minds to the same or similar level as Gandhi or Mother Teresa. Ultimately though these people do not believe that Jesus is the Christ, the holy Son of God. Others, like many of us here today, confess that Jesus is the Lord - that He is God in the flesh, both fully man and fully God. Understanding this distinction is the critical first step in defining who the believers are that make up the church.
II. THE FIRM FOUNDATION OF THE CHURCH - Matthew 16:17-18a
Following Peter’s confession, Jesus makes an interesting statement. He explains that Peter did not come to recognize Jesus as the Christ through human means or by human understanding; rather his recognition of Jesus as the Christ was revealed to him by God. The nature of mankind is unrighteous and unholy, and apart from God’s intervention we are unable to see Jesus for who He really is. Following our own intellect we might perceive Him to be a great religious leader, like the crowds of people did, but nothing more. The only way that we as carnal humans can identify Jesus as the Son of God is if the LORD Himself supernaturally reveals this truth to us, as He did to Peter.
Next, Jesus turns the tables and identifies Peter. He is pointing out the fact that He personally knows those who have come to know Him. Because Peter has confessed Jesus as the Christ, Jesus is now able to know Peter is a personal and redemptive way. This type of knowledge is not merely informational, but is more relational. The Bible teaches that while Jesus factually knows about and is aware of the particulars about everyone, He only personally knows those who have accepted Him as the divine Lord and Savior of their lives. Only those who identify Jesus as Christ have a personal, saving relationship with Him.
Now we discover how this passage applies to our study of the church. Jesus declares that “upon this rock I will build my church”. The rock, or foundation, upon which the church will be built is the confession that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”. This is the bedrock confession of the church. Therefore, it can be said with certainty that the church consists exclusively of those who believe and confess that Jesus is the divine Son of God. In other words, the church is composed solely of Christians. Those who are non-Christians are not legitimate members of the church, regardless of whether they claim to be or not. The church is established on the basis of Jesus’ identity as the Christ, a knowledge that can only be attained by the transcendent revelation of God.
Notice also that Jesus says that “He” will build “His” church. The church belongs to Him, and He alone is responsible for its creation. The church does not belong to us, nor can we hope to sustain it apart from the supernatural work of God. We have a nasty tendency to become very possessive when it comes to the church. Because our families have attended for years and have invested so much into the church, we sometimes begin to take personal ownership of it. Often this faulty line of thinking can lead to friction among the membership and problems within the congregation. Let us all be reminded that the church belongs wholly to the Lord Jesus Christ - He built it and He sustains it. While I might casually say that this is “my church” because it is where I go to worship and serve God, I must always be keenly aware that it is actually His church and that I am blessed to be a part of it.
One other observation of this phrase is that Jesus announces that He “will” build His church - future tense. Based on this statement, we can deduce that Jesus has not yet established the church at the time of this discussion which the disciples, nor is He establishing it at that very moment. It is something that He intends to do and will do later on. We will talk more about the actual beginning of the church in next week’s message.
III. THE FORCEFUL POWER OF THE CHURCH - Matthew 16:18b-19
Jesus promises that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church. The church of our Lord Jesus Christ will ultimately achieve the decisive victory over Hell and the grave. When we understand that the church is made up entirely of born again Christians, Jesus’ meaning becomes pretty clear. Regardless of how relentlessly Satan tries to destroy them, those who have a saving relationship with the Lord - the church - have been and will be rescued from the power of death and the confinement of Hell.
Finally Jesus tells Peter that He will give him the keys to the kingdom of heaven. The singular tense of the Greek word for “you” used in this verse shows us Jesus is talking specifically to Peter. However, when considered in conjunction with the broader teachings of Scripture, it is erroneous to believe that Peter alone was given these keys. While Peter was certainly instrumental in opening the doors of heaven to the Jews, Samaritans, and Gentiles by preaching the gospel to them, so also were several others. We too share in this same privilege today. In a very real sense, Jesus has given the keys of heaven to all believers who constitute His church that we might open the doors of salvation to this lost and dying world. We are like the gatekeepers of heaven. Our behaviors and actions as the church have a strong influence on either binding or preventing people from coming to know Christ, or loosing and allowing them to come to saving repentance.
As was stated at the outset, the church is “an autonomous local congregation of baptized believers”. Although we often speak of the church as if it is a building or a location, the Bible is quite clear that the church is actually a group of people. Not just any people mind you, but specifically and exclusively those who identify and confess Jesus as the Christ, the Son of the living God. This is what we mean by using the term “believers”.
The church was established by and belongs completely to Jesus. It is empowered by and given authority from God. It is founded upon the identity of Christ and made up of those who confess and believe that He is the divine Son of God. Non-Christians are not and can not be valid members of the church. While we as people cannot always accurately discern who is and who is not truly and sincerely saved, God knows without a doubt who His children are. The church is, therefore, the community of all who have been genuinely born-again and both know and are known by the LORD.
You may have been attending church all your life, and your name might even be listed on the church roll, but unless you have accepted Christ as your Lord and personal Savior you are not a true member of His church. Whatsmore, local churches who knowingly accept unsaved people into their membership pervert the teaching of God and compromise the purity and sanctity of their congregations. This is not to imply that the church shouldn’t reach out to and be hospitable toward the lost, but they should not embrace them as fellow members.