A NOTE ABOUT THIS TRANSCRIPT
The following sermon transcript does not match the video version of the sermon—it matches only the audio version. Here's a brief explanation why.
John MacArthur routinely preaches a sermon more than once on the same date, during different worship services at Grace Community Church. Normally, for a given sermon title, our website features the audio and video that were recorded during the same worship service. Very occasionally, though, we will post the audio from one service and the video from another. Such was the case for the sermon titled "Christ, the Head of the Church," the transcript of which follows below. The transcript is of the audio version.
When I say that Christ is the head of the church, you don’t rebel against that; you most likely affirm that. But so many, many of you have come from a Roman Catholic background. You have been taught since you were children that the pope was the head of the church. And the truth of the matter is that has been the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church through the centuries. And in fact, for people who denied that, there was very often severe persecution and even martyrdom.
One could say that the doctrine of Christ as the head of the church has sailed down through history on a sea of blood. I think we need to understand that. But let’s begin by looking at Ephesians chapter 1, and I want to read, starting at verse 14, “Reminding us that we have been redeemed as God’s own possession to the praise of His glory.”
And then verse 15, “For this reason I too, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which exists among you and your love for all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, while making mention of you in my prayers; that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of Him. I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened so that you will know what is the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.”
“Christ is the head of the church,” says Paul. He says it again in chapter 4, verse 15. He says it again in chapter 5, verse 23. He says it again in Colossians chapter 1, verse 18. He says it again in Colossians chapter 2, verse 10. Repeatedly, Christ is the head of the church. And yet, that has been an embattled truth.
Let me take you back in history. You may remember the name Jan Hus, well known and well loved by any who know Reformation history. And since this is the year we celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of Luther’s posting his Ninety-five Theses, which marks a milestone in the Reformation, it might be good to go back to that time.
In fact, let’s go a hundred years before Luther to Jan Hus. He was a Bohemian; that would be northeast Croatia. He was a pre-Reformation reformer. He was born to very poor, peasant parents in Husinec, now a part of Croatia. At the age of 20, he shortened his name to Hus. He was named for the village he was in. He shortened it to Hus, took it as his name; it means “the goose.” That nickname stuck so that even Martin Luther, a century later, referred to Hus being martyred as “the goose was cooked.” That’s still with us today.
The day for the cooking of the goose, Jan Hus, was July 6, 1415. He was taken to the cathedral in Prague. He was dressed in the full regalia of his priestly garb and then stripped ceremoniously one piece at a time as a symbol of his defrocking. He was brought before the Council of Constance, led by the Bishop of Constance, and he was condemned to death.
He was tied to a stake, and history says that when tied to the stake he said this, “Lord Jesus, it is for you that I patiently endure this cruel death. Have mercy on my enemies.” And then he was heard reciting the Psalms as the flames engulfed him and snuffed out his life.
His executioners then scooped up his ashes and tossed them into a nearby lake so that nothing would remain of him that could be captured and memorialized. But some collected bits of dirt at the foot of the pyre, took them back to Bohemia for a memorial to Jan Hus.
A hundred years later, Martin Luther is rummaging through stacks in a library. He comes across a volume of folios, sermons by Jan Hus. Luther began to read those sermons, and he wrote this: “I was overwhelmed with astonishment. I could not understand for what cause they had hurt so great a man who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and so much skill.”
Hus became a kind of hero to Martin Luther, not only for preaching the Bible and preaching biblical doctrine, but for taking a position against the selling of indulgences. Why did they execute Hus? A little biography. Poor parents, not much future economically. So, his father told him, “If you want to be set for life, become a priest and the church will take care of you.” So he did that. He went to the university, earned a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree, and a doctorate. And in 1401, he was ordained a Roman Catholic priest.
He was a gifted preacher. In fact, he was so gifted that he was given the largest pulpit in that part of the world, the Bethlehem Chapel in the city of Prague. It would seat 3,000 people, and it was frequently filled to hear him preach.
And then he did something that was very unconventional and disturbing; he preached in the language of the people and not in Latin. He was being influenced at the very time by the writings of John Wycliffe. And when he would preach, he would discuss and explain the Bible, desiring to hold, believe, assert whatever the Bible contained, he said, “As long as I have breath in me.”
That was intolerable to the Roman Catholic Church, so, he was forbidden to preach. He was excommunicated, but he kept preaching. They couldn’t get him out of the pulpit. Leaning more heavily on the Bible, more heavily on the Word of God, which he then proclaimed as “the final authority.” The Roman Catholic Church had to find a way to stop him, so they made a law that no citizen of that city could receive communion or be buried in the church cemetery as long as he kept preaching.
So, to spare the people, he went to the countryside in 1412. And in the countryside, he began to write. And the most significant document that he wrote was on the church. And once he had finished writing it, it was taken back into Prague, and it was read publically. And his views were radical.
Number one, he said, “The church is made up of all predestined believers.” That doesn’t sound radical to you, but it was radical then, because the Roman Catholic Church said, “The church is composed of the pope and his cardinals and his bishops and his priests and not the common people. They touch the church through the mass.” And the touch was limited only to the bread – not the wine for fear they would spill the blood of Christ. He said, “The church is made up of all believers.” That was radical.
Secondly, he said, “The Bible is a higher authority than the church,” and that was radical.
And thirdly, he said, “Jesus Christ is the head of the church, not the pope.” That was the final straw. He argued that Christ alone is the head of the church and not the pope: quote, “Who through ignorance and love of money is corrupt. To rebel against the pope,” he said, “was to obey Christ, the head of the church.”
The truth of Christ’s headship gripped his soul to the point that it cost him his life. A century later, Martin Luther is engaged in the same fight for the honor of the true head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ. Luther said, “I am persuaded that if at this time St. Peter, in person, should preach all the articles of Holy Scripture, and only deny the pope’s authority, power, and primacy, and say that the pope is not the head of the church, they would cause Peter to be hanged.”
He went on to say this: “If Christ Himself were on earth again and should preach, without all doubt, that Christ is the head of the church, the pope would crucify Christ.”
The Roman Catholic Church has always had the position that the pope is the head of the church. Let me read you from Roman Catholic theology. Quote, “The pope possesses full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the whole church, not merely in matters of faith and morals, but also in church discipline and in the government of the church.”
The Vatican Council said this, and I quote: “If anyone shall say that the Roman Pontiff has the office merely of inspection and direction and not a full and supreme power of jurisdiction over the universal church, let him be damned.” “Let him be damned.”
Ludwig Ott, Roman Catholic theologian, further says, “A true power, a universal power, a supreme power, a full power is possessed by any pope who can thereby rule independently on any matter, without the consent of anyone else. He himself is judged by no one because there is no higher judge than he.” To which Luther would say, as he did, “I gave the pope no more obedience than I would give to Antichrist.”
Popes always welcome human adoration as “holy father” and “head of the church,” even today. “The pope,” according to Roman Catholic dogma, “has full, supreme, universal power over the whole church,” and I’m quoting, “a power which he can always exercise unhindered. We declare,” says the church, “we say, we define and pronounce that it is absolutely necessary for the salvation of every human creature to be subject to the pope.” Necessary for salvation.
The Fifth Lateran Council said, “Where the necessity of salvation is concerned, all the faithful of Christ must be subject to the pope.”
D’Aubigné, the historian who wrote the history of the Reformation, wrote this: “Luther’s rejection of the pope as head of the church inflicted the most terrible wound on Rome.” John Calvin agreed. He said, “Some think us too severe when we call the Roman Pontiff Antichrist.”
The Scottish Reformer John Knox identified the pope as the Antichrist tyrant over the church. Bloody Mary, who served the pope from 1555 to 1558, in about 45 months slaughtered 283 Protestants - the first one John Rogers, who combined translations of the Old Testament with Tyndale’s New Testament to produce a whole Bible in the English language. What was his crime? He wouldn’t obey the pope. He wouldn’t obey the pope. So, Bloody Mary first bloodied her hands with John Rogers, followed by 282 more who denied the headship of the pope.
Henry VIII, who had been a loyal subject to the pope, tried to get the pope to allow him to divorce Catherine so he could marry Anne. The pope wouldn’t do that, so, he repudiated the pope and declared himself the head of the church. He required every household in his kingdom to swear an oath that they believed he, not the pope, was the head of the church. Those who refused to swear were hanged and drawn and quartered, which means they were literally hanged up, cut down alive, mutilated, beheaded, and chopped into pieces for not acknowledging Henry VIII as the head of the church.
Charles I insisted that he should rule the church and ordered himself to wear the title and be acknowledged as head of the church. The Scots, who had been infected by the Reformation through John Knox, rejected that. This was a bloody rejection. Fifty years of slaughter of the Scots, who signed the National Covenant, which included that Christ was the head of the church and were bloodied for signing that.
In 1637, the English tried to impose this headship on the Scots, and that’s what led to that fifty-year battle. There’s a traditional story that in the Cathedral of St. Giles in Edinburgh – some of you have been there; I’ve been there a number of times – one of the representatives of the Roman Catholic system from England had come and was introducing to the Scots the new prayer book, and the story is that a lady named Jenny Geddes was so offended, along with everybody else, she picked up her stool and threw it at him. Whether that actually happened or not, I don’t know, but a rebellion started at that point that led to the signing of a National Covenant where about 60,000 Scots affirmed Christ as the head of the church and not the king of England. This is what led to the Covenanters and the bloodbath. Charles II leads the slaughter, chopping, hacking, beheading, and drowning all who resisted himself as the head of the church.
I remember reading about Richard Cameron, who one day received a box at his door and a messenger gave it to him, and he opened it. And in it were his son’s hands severed from his body, later to be followed by his son’s head, who was a true preacher of the gospel. Four hundred pastors were slaughtered in one region. You can go today to Edinburgh and go to the Grassmarket – it’s still there – and see where much of that slaughter took place.
But when a doctrine is attacked the true church rises up to fight it and to clarify it. By the force of reaction, the church was thrown upon the more full assertion of Christ’s claims as head of the church and the glorious privilege of the church to follow her head. The more the truth was denied, the more they fought. And the more they fought the more clear the truth became.
The vision was clarified, as it is in Revelation, that the Lamb was in the midst of the throne, having on His head many crowns. It clarified that Christ is the head of the whole church.
The church is a monarchy, folks, and Christ is the King. It’s a monarchy. We’re not used to that in America. We had a revolution that eliminated the future of us having a king. We don’t like absolute rulers, dictators, despots. We don’t like people with absolute power, absolute privilege, absolute sovereignty, absolute authority, absolute rights. We don’t understand one-man rule, where one person does exactly what he wants, whenever he wants, wherever he wants, however he wants. We’ve never had a king. We’ve never been slaves who had a master. We’re outraged by the idea of one-man rule. We try to fix it where we find it existing other places in the world. We have no experience of singular, absolute sovereignty. That is exactly what God claims for His church. It is a kingdom, and we have a King, and He is the absolute sovereign.
The church is a monarchy. That is the foundational understanding of the church. It is the kingdom of God. And when we go out to fulfill the Great Commission, we preach the gospel, we baptize people, and then we “teach them,” our Lord said, “to observe all things whatsoever I have” – What’s the next word? – “commanded you.”
Non-biblical ministry, non-biblical preaching, non-doctrinal teaching usurps Christ’s headship. How is it that the head of the church speaks authoritatively to His church? Through His Word. This is the Word of Christ. This is the mind of Christ.
I have a stewardship – we read that this morning – given unto me. I was made a minister and given a stewardship to proclaim the Word of the head of the church. My task is to know the mind of Christ, how He thinks, through the Word of Christ, what is written in Scripture. Any approach to a church or a ministry that strips the church of the Word of Christ and the mind of Christ builds indifference and ignorance toward the Bible, prevents the preacher from being the voice of the Lord to His church, removes protection from error and sin, eliminates transcendence, cripples worship, produces compromise, cheats people of the riches of the truth that the head of the church desires for them to have.
When you think about ministry, it’s really a pretty simple picture. I serve a King. I say what the King wants me to say, the way He wants me to say it. I don’t edit Him; I’m not selective; I don’t decide what I won’t say and what I will say. I have a stewardship given to me. Why do we go through the Bible the way we do, book by book, verse by verse, chapter by chapter? Because this is the Word of the King to His church. I’m only a messenger. I’m just a steward. I’m just a herald. That’s what I’m called. That’s what any preacher is called.
Sadly, today, the headship of Christ over His church is under assault, and it’s not under assault so much from the Roman Catholic Church as it’s under assault from self-appointed heads of the church who think their word is more important than Christ’s.
I don’t know that there’s any preacher who would say, “I don’t believe in the headship of Christ.” They would all say, “Yes, He’s the head of the church.” But is He the One heard there, or am I hearing a man? Whatever you say you believe about Christ being the head of the church, will become manifestly evident when I listen to you talk. If you speak the mind of Christ through the Word of Christ, I know you understand what it means that He’s the head of the church.
What do we mean by the head of the church? Well, for a number of decades, the concept of headship has been under assault by the feminists who don’t like the idea that the Bible also says the man is the head of the woman. So, they want to take the idea of head and see if they can’t strip it of its notions of authority.
Ephesians 5 is very clear: “The husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church.” So, if you can get rid of the husband’s authority over the wife, you’ve just gotten rid of Christ’s authority over the church.
The word “head,” kephal - very familiar word in the Greek language - means what it says: physically “the head.” Metaphorically it means “authority.” In 1985, Dr. Wayne Grudem studied kephal in regard to the feminist movement. He examined 2,336 examples of its use in ancient Greek, from Homer in the 8th century all the way through to church Fathers in the 4th century - 1,200 years of it. “Never,” he wrote, “when the word was used of a person” – not a body part, when it was used of a person – “never did it have any other meaning than governing, ruling authority.”
That is exactly what Philippians 2 means when it says that God gave to Jesus a “name which is above every name.” It is the name “Lord,” and at that name every knee must – What? – bow.
Now, let’s go back to Ephesians 1. Who made Christ head of the church? We read in verse 22 that He is the “head over all things to the church.” Who put Him in that place? Go back in verse 22, “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and He gave Him as head over the church.” Who is He? The same one, verse 20, “He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand.” Who is He? Back to verse 17, “The God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory.” He is the One who made Christ the head of the church.
The sovereign Father who chose us, who called us, who placed us in the church, gave us His Son to be the head. He established our eternal inheritance. He regenerated us. He is sanctifying us. He is glorifying us. He caused us to die in Christ and rise in Christ and one day to be seated with Christ in glory. Christ is our everything. Christ is our all in all, and Christ is our sovereign ruler.
Look at verse 21. He is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things.” That is unmistakably clear. He is “over all rule.” That’s the word archs; it means “firsts.” He’s the first above all the other firsts. The word “authority,” exousias, means “right.” Of all those who have rights, He has greater rights. “Power” is dynames. Of all who have power, He has greater power. “Dominion” is kyriottos, “lordships.” Of all lords, He is the greatest Lord. He is Lord of lords. Of all powers, He is the greater power. All power is given unto Him in heaven and in earth. Of all those who have rights, He has the superior and supreme rights. Of all firsts, He is the first above all firsts, King of kings, Lord of lords. Not just above, “far above,” hyperan. Hyperan, “high above, super high, infinitely above” all persons – that’s what “name” means – and “all things” in verse 22.
He is the sovereign over all and He is the sovereign over all forever because it says at the end of verse 21, “in this age and also in the one to come.” Now and forever He reigns universally over His creation and every person in it. And here the language is magnificent. Notice it carefully in verse 22, He “gave Him” – the One who is “far above all rule, authority, power, and dominion,” the One who is “far above every name that is named in this world and the world to come,” the One to whom all things in existence are made subject under His feet, that One who is the head over all things, He gave “to the church.”
It doesn’t say here He’s the head of the church. It says He’s head over all things, and as head over all things was given to the church. It’s a powerful phrase in the original. He gave the One who was already head of the universe to the church to be her head. The universal sovereign takes His rightful place as the head, the Lord of His church. This is the most glorious language imaginable by the Holy Spirit, expressing the love of God to His redeemed church. He didn’t give us Michael. He didn’t give us Gabriel. He didn’t give us ten thousand super angels. He didn’t give us just the apostles. He didn’t give us Paul. He didn’t give us gifted preachers, teachers, theologians, and evangelists to be the head of the church. He gave us the ruler of the entire universe, and we are His body, and He is our head.
He is for us; He is over us; He is in us. He literally, end of verse 23, “Fills all of us.” We are His body. “The fullness of Him who fills all in all.” We are full of the sovereign Christ.
I say, “Fall on your knees, you popes; fall on your faces, you kings and queens and rulers. Humble yourselves, you self-appointed leaders of the church, self-appointed lords and heads who lead it your way and not His. Humiliate yourselves, you who set the Scripture aside for your own words. Take your place on the ground, all you who put your cleverness and your creativity and your will and your teaching between Christ and His church. Bow.”
John Calvin said, “Hence, should anyone call us anywhere else than to Christ, he is empty and full of wind. Let us therefore, without concern, bid him farewell.”
Back to Jan Hus. It’s reported that at his death Hus said this: “You may silence this goose, but there will come a swan you will not be able to silence.” A hundred years later – by the way, he said that to the bishop of the Council of Constance: “You may silence this goose; there will come a swan you will not be able to silence.” A hundred years later, Martin Luther appeared. You will see paintings of Luther, and in the background, very frequently, you’ll see a swan. He was that swan.
Patricia and I had the opportunity a few years ago to be in a little town of Erfurt in Germany, in a little church. Just happened to be the church where Martin Luther was ordained. And at his ordination, as was required, he would lie flat on the ground, with his arms extended, kind of a cross-like posture, facing downward. Body straight, arms out. It just so happened that he was laying on a crypt, because if you lie down in most of those churches – those ancient churches – you’re lying on graves. Luther was lying on a crypt. The crypt Luther was lying, when he was ordained, was the grave of the Bishop of Constance who had condemned Jan Hus.
So, the swan had arrived on the grave of the man who condemned the goose. Maybe, just maybe, when Hus said to the Bishop of Constance, “You may silence this goose, but there will come a swan you will not be able to silence,” maybe the bishop said, “Hah, over my dead body.” So it was.
May God help us to honor our head, the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen?
Father, we thank You for our time this morning, Your Word, endeavoring to exalt our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and to therefore exalt You, blessed Father, and You, blessed Spirit. Thank You for the stewardship of ministry. Thank you for the gift of Christ, in all His glory, for us, with us, in us. We are so stunned by the reality of Your redemptive purpose unfolding in every believer’s life.
We thank you for the church, the church militant, the church on earth, the church living gospel lives and preaching gospel truth. And we long for the day when we’ll join the church triumphant in Your presence, gathered around Your throne, singing “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain.” Keep us faithful.
And I pray, Lord, that those folks who are hearing this message now, who have not bowed the knee to the Lord Jesus Christ would do so with urgency and eagerness, to take their place in the kingdom – Your kingdom – in the kingdom where we are blessed with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ, even now, and one day in their fullness.
We ask, Lord, that You would work a work in every one of our hearts that takes this truth and transposes it into worship, into obedience, and into witness. To that end we pray. Amen.
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