We have been talking about the ordinary church, and when I say ordinary, I mean ordinary in the sense that it follows the course of Scripture. We talked last week about how popular it is to see yourself as something extraordinary as a church: unique, different, awesome, extreme, or whatever. We just want to be an ordinary church, and the ordinary church as defined by the Word of God.
The most common complaint that I hear from Christians everywhere as I told you last week is, “I can’t find a church.” I think within a rather reasonable area around my own house there are 125-150 so-called churches. This could be true just about anywhere in our country, and yet people can’t find a church. What they mean by that is an ordinary church, a real church, a biblical church; and there develops in their hearts a kind of desperate disappointment over that, because the church is our life. God’s people want an ordinary church, a true and real church.
For true believers in Jesus Christ, the church is where we live and move and have our being. We there worship our great God. The Redeemer-God crafted a plan of salvation to bring us to eternal glory by grace. It is there that we exalt His Son, the head of our church, the One who paid the price of redemption to buy us back from the kingdom of darkness, the slave market of sin. It is there that we minister to one another in the power of the Holy Spirit, who indwells us and gifts us and enables us to serve.
We have been delivered out of the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of God’s beloved Son, the true and living, God-honoring, Christ-exalting, Spirit-indwelt church. That’s our family; it’s our fellowship. We are aliens in this world. We’re not citizens of this world, we’re citizens of the eternal kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, which is the church. So we have been looking at what the Bible says a church, a real church, an ordinary church is.
I want you to turn in your Bible to Matthew 16 for the beginning of our time this morning, and I’ll come back to this in a bit. In Matthew 16 you have the first mention in the New Testament of the word church, and it is on the lips of the Lord Himself. And here we find the foundation realities that define for us the nature of the church. They’re laid out in this conversation between our Lord and His disciples. We’re going to look at just the opening part of this sixteenth chapter. We’re actually going to spend our time over the next few weeks going from verse 13 all the way to verse 28, because it all relates to understanding the church. But let’s begin at the beginning and just a little bit beyond the opening.
Verse 13: “Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’ But He said to them, ‘Who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ [the Messiah], the Son of the living God.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Blessed are you, Simon, son of Jonas, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.’” That great statement in verse 18, “‘I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it,’” shows the determination of our Lord and the invincibility of the church. “‘I will build My church.’”
I tried to communicate to you last week that those of us who are in Christ, who love Christ, love the church. I love the church. Church is our life. And I want to help you to understand the church a little bit better, because I think so many people define the church in terms of their own human experience. You had a bad experience at a church, you don’t like the church.
Some people are proud to say, “I’m a Christian, but I don’t like the church,” a rather disconnected and bizarre comment. So I want to help you to understand the church, the church that you must love, the church that you do love, the church that you will increasingly love as you share its life. And before we go down into this text, I want to pull us back up again, give you a satellite view a little bit. Here are some reasons why I love the church.
First of all, I love the church because it is the only entity our Lord is building in this world. It is the only entity our Lord is building in this world. That’s all. Everything else really falls under the kingdom of darkness. Everything else is under the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that works in the sons of disobedience, the children of wrath. Everything else is, to one degree or another, a satanic enterprise. Everything else is darkness.
The Lord created the universe; He created the world. He is the Creator of all that is in it. And when He originally created it, it was good, it was very good. But it’s been cursed, and it’s been corrupted, and it’s under judgment, and it’s dying; it is dying. The church is the only entity in the world that will survive death; everything else will die.
If you’re a part of the church, you’re a part of those who live forever; everything else dies. The entire universe will implode in an uncreation, and the elements will melt with fervent heat, and the universe as it exists now will go out of existence and be replaced by a new heaven and a new earth, created in righteousness for eternal occupation of those who live forever. It’s a beautiful world the Lord has created, and we still enjoy the beauty of it, even though it is scarred and marred and tainted and stained with sin. But the earth is going the opposite direction of the church. The earth is in the process of disintegration. Humanity is in the process of disintegration. The law of entropy causes everything to head toward disorder.
The church is increasingly being conformed to Christ from one level of glory to the next, to the next, to the next. It runs a reverse course from the corrupted world. If you’re of the church, then every day is brighter than the day before, as you ascend to the day of glory when you see your Lord face-to-face. In the middle of a dying world, it’s thrilling to be a part of what is alive and will live forever.
The church, made up of souls chosen by the Father in eternity past before creation, chosen before they were ever created or born, chosen and their names written down in a book, chosen to be love gifts from the Father to the Son as an expression of intra-trinitarian, divine love. Love gifts to the Son who would then one day enter heaven collectively all of them for the sole purpose of exalting the Son and serving the Son and reflecting His glory. That’s why Jesus refers to believers as “those whom the Father has given Me” - love gifts to the Son, eternal love gifts. This was all done in eternity past before anything was created.
And then in time, there had to be a sufficient sacrifice to pay for the sins of the love gifts from the Father to the Son. And so the Son comes into the world, takes on human flesh, is virgin-born, lives a sinless life, dies a substitutionary death in our place, atones for our sin, is declared the final and satisfying sacrifice that propitiates the wrath of God, is exalted to the right-hand of the Father, and the price has been paid – a real price, a true atonement for the elect.
Then in time, of course, the Holy Spirit regenerates, grants understanding and repentance and faith to believe the gospel, and the church grows one soul at a time. The Father’s plan in eternity, the Son’s work in time, and the Spirit’s continuing work throughout all of history to gather the church. The church, then, is the assembly of the sons of God, the children of God, chosen in eternity, redeemed by the sacrifice of Christ, and begotten into eternal life by the Holy Spirit through the word of the gospel. And one day, when all the redeemed, all the church is gathered and taken to heaven, the Son will, according to 1 Corinthians 15:27-28, take all of the redeemed, all those who constitute the love gift from the Father to the Son. He will gather them together and He will return them to the Father in an act of reciprocal love. And He will give them back to the Father along with Himself so that God will be all-in-all. We literally are a part of a divine, intra-trinitarian expression of incomprehensible love between the Father and the Son. I love the church, because this is the only entity our Lord is building in the world and taking toward eternal glory. What a privilege to be a part of this.
Secondly, I love the church because it is, therefore, the most precious reality in all of creation. It is the most precious reality in all of creation, because it is the only thing that lives everlastingly, and its value is not predicated on the people who are in it, but the price that was paid for the worthless people who were in it. The value is declared when you read in Acts 20 that the church was purchased with God’s blood. Or when you read it in 1 Peter 1 that we were redeemed not with corruptible things like silver and gold, from the vain manner of our life, but by the precious blood of Christ, the blood of the Lamb without blemish and without spot.
First Corinthians 6, we were “bought with a price.” And what is the price? The price, 2 Corinthians 5:21, God made Christ sin for us. That’s the price He paid by taking the full fury of God against all the sins of all the people who will ever believe through all of human history, and took it all in three hours of darkness. And I often think, “How could any one person absorb all that sin in three hours?” And the answer is: an infinite person was capable of absorbing an infinite amount of sin. The church has to be the most valuable thing in the world, because the highest price was paid for it. The most precious of all things was given to purchase it.
I love the church, thirdly, because it is the earthly expression of heaven. This morning we had a little bit of heaven; we tasted heaven. This is where heaven comes down. This is not where the world comes in, this is where heaven comes down. This is heaven on earth. This is heaven on earth. Anybody who walks into a church ought to feel like he just entered something that is unearthly, not something familiar - something alien to the unregenerated person.
You know, our Lord taught His disciples to pray, and He taught them to say this: “Your will be done, as it is in heaven.” Now where is that going to happen? When we say, “Lord, we want Your will done on earth as it is in heaven,” where is that going to happen? It’s not going to happen in the universities of our world. It’s not going to happen in the halls of power of our world. It only happens in one place; it only happens in the church. This is where heaven comes down.
You could ask the question, “Well, in what sense does that happen?” Well, what’s going on in heaven? What’s happening in heaven? We know from Scripture that there’s incessant worship of God. We know that there is constant exaltation of Jesus Christ. We know there is endless praise. We know there is knowledge of divine truth; there’s pervasive, dominating holiness; and there is joyous service.
Did you hear all that? That should be happening in the church. We should be characterized by the worship of God. It should be lofty. It should be exalted. It should have a gravitas, a seriousness about it. Christ should be constantly being exalted. It ought to be Christ-centered, not man-centered. It’s not about you, it’s about Him. Here we should be engaged in endless praise. We should be learning, so that the knowledge of divine truth is increasing. We should be pursuing holiness and serving with joy. That’s how heaven comes down. That only happens in the church, the ordinary church. I love the church because it is heaven on earth.
I also love the church because it triumphs over all sinful opposition, it triumphs over all sinful opposition. Jesus said, “I will build My church, and the gates of Hades” – euphemism for death – “will not be able to overpower it.” The church is victorious. Jesus said, “All that the Father gives to Me will come to Me, and I’ll lose none of them” (John 6), “I’ll raise them all at the last day.” He will build His church, and no one who is given by the Father to the Son will be lost. That is why Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2, “God always causes us to triumph in Christ.” We win. The church wins. The church triumphs.
So much talk about political power, military power in our world. It all burns up. The church triumphs. The church is the triumphant reality in the world. To be a part of that is just astonishing - what grace.
I love the church, fifthly, because it is the steward of divine revelation. It’s the steward of truth. The world is full of lies, deception, error. We expect that the kingdom of darkness is just that, dark – morally dark and dark in terms of ignorance. Satan is a liar and the father of lies, and he runs that kingdom. So it is basically dominated by lies. The world is filled with lies and liars and deceivers, and people are ever-learning, but never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. What a fruitless thing.
But the church is “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15), “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” The church, according to 1 Corinthians 4:1-2, is the steward of the mysteries of God. The mysteries of God, simply Paul uses that phrase to refer to New Testament truth, the revelation of God in the New Testament. We are the steward of divine revelation.
As Israel was in the Old Testament – Paul refers to that – to them were given the Scriptures. Israel was the steward of the Scriptures in the Old Testament. We all know the story of their defection, faithlessness, apostasy. The church is the steward of divine revelation since the New Testament. And we all know the story of the church’s defection, apostasy, corruption. But not the true church. The true church is incorruptible. The Lord is building the true church, and the true church is known because it holds to the stewardship of divine revelation.
Paul tells Timothy to guard the truth (chapter 6, verse 20): “Guard what has been entrusted to you.” The guardianship of the truth is the very highest task of the church. We proclaim the truth as truth only when we have guarded it as truth. Paul tells Timothy, really repeatedly in very sort of brief and direct ways. He says, for example, in 1 Timothy 4:6, speaking of the Word of God, “In pointing out these things to the brethren, you will be a good servant of Christ Jesus, constantly nourished on the words of the faith and of the sound doctrine.” That’s life for us to be nourished on the words of the faith, that would be the revealed words of God in Scripture, and the sound doctrine that those words yield. It’s all about truth. It’s all about doctrine. It’s all about propositional truth.
In that same chapter, verse 11, Paul says to Timothy, “Command and teach these things.” And then he says in verse 13, “Until I come, give attention to the reading of the Scripture” - the explaining of the Scripture, and the application of the Scripture. “Pay close attention to yourself and to your doctrine; persevere in these things.” He tells Titus, “Speak the things that are concerning sound doctrine.” It is absolutely essential if you’re going to be a church that anybody who walks in the church immediately is going to be exposed to sound doctrine. Again, the church is the steward of the mysteries of God on behalf of the people of God, and the truth of God is the food of the people of God. You don’t live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God.
For all these reasons, I love the church. It is the only entity the Lord is building in the world. It’s the only thing going the direction of eternal life; everything else’s going to death. I love the church because it’s the most precious reality in all creation, proven by the price that was paid for it. I love the church because it’s heaven on earth. I love it because it triumphs over all evil opposition. I love the church because it is the sole steward of divine revelation.
And that leads me to say, sixthly, I love the church because it’s the place of safety, it’s the place of safety. It’s the fold of the Great Shepherd, where He raises up under-shepherds to be the guardians of His sheep. Do you remember Jesus looking over the Jews and saying, “They’re like sheep without” – What? – “without a shepherd.”
You may think that you can do it on your own as a sheep without a shepherd, but you are in grave danger, grave danger. You need a safe place. You need a fold. You need protection. You need protectors. You need sanctifying shepherds. The church is the place where you have sanctifying shepherds.
And there’s so much more I could say. The church is the gathering of grateful, joyful worshipers. The church is the family of fellowship where our burdens are shared, where our spiritual gifts are exchanged, and one-another’s given to us for our growth into Christlikeness are spread throughout our family. The church is where we launch the testimony of Christ to the world. It is the beauty of our church in its collective life that gives credibility to individual testimony. It’s little wonder that Paul said the church, particularly at Thessalonica, was his “glory and joy,” his “glory and joy.”
So that’s kind of a satellite view looking down on all that the church is. From there let’s drop down into the reality of Matthew 16 and come to earth for a bit. As I said, we’re going to be a few weeks getting down to verse 28. But this is the text of Scripture in which our Lord puts together the components of the ordinary church. And when I say ordinary, I mean ordinary only in the sense that it is the common church that is the pattern that all churches should follow.
I want you to hear the elements of the church. You know, typically, if you ask people, “How do you distinguish the church?” they might say, “stained-glassed windows, steeple, pews, pulpit, alar,” whatever. But here are the real marks of a church.
How do you know when you’ve found a real church? How do you know when you’ve found the true church, when you’ve found an ordinary church? Number one: It is distinguished by a great confession. It is distinguished by a great confession.
The thing that first marks a church is what that church confesses to be true. It’s its theology, it’s its doctrine, and it is it’s doctrine at one very specific point. Let’s look again at verses 13-16.
“When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’ And they said, ‘Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.’” And, of course, the disciples are reflecting there the attitude of the Jewish people who were at least neutral on Jesus, and maybe somewhat positive, but not willing to acknowledge Him as the Messiah. That was sort of common conversation about who this Jesus might well be.
“He said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’ Simon Peter answered,” – and not for himself alone, but for all of them, he being their spokesman – “‘You are the Messiah, the Christ [in Greek], the Son of the living God.’” And in verse 18 the Lord said, “On that confession I’ll build My church.” “On that confession I will build My church.” Here is the great confession of the church: Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed One of God, the perfect Prophet/Priest/King, anointed by the Holy Spirit at His baptism, the miracle worker who is of the same nature as God. He is the Son of the living God.
The great confession that a true church makes is concerning Christ. The first thing you need to know about a true church is its Christology. What does it think of Jesus Christ? Who is Jesus Christ? That is the issue.
So significantly is that the issue that the apostle John gives a very stern warning in 2 John, verse 9: “Anyone who goes beyond and doesn’t abide in the teaching of Christ, if you get outside the truth concerning Christ, you do not have God. The one who abides in the doctrine concerning Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and doesn’t bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house, do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds.” Don’t even give him an audience if he denies the person of Christ, what Scripture says about the true Christ.
The positive side of that, and “we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God.”
It’s essentially the same as confessing Jesus as Lord, which was the great Christian confession (Romans 10:9-10), “If you believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, and confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, you will be saved.” “There’s no other foundation than can be laid than Jesus” (1 Corinthians 3). “He is the cornerstone in the foundation of the church” (Ephesians 2:20).
No deviating view of Christ can be tolerated. “If anybody comes along” (Galatians 1:8-9) “and preaches any other gospel” – and that would include any other Christ – “let him be damned.” Paul repeats himself twice.
Let’s get this settled at the very beginning. The ordinary church is that assembly of people who confess Jesus as the Messiah, the anointed One, the Son of God. This is why the gospels are written, “that you might believe that Jesus is the anointed One, that He is the Son of God, and that by believing you may have eternal life in His name.” It’s about Christ. It’s about Christ. It’s about Christ.
The church is about Christ; it’s not about you. If you go someplace and they say they’re a church and all they do is talk about you and your life and your needs and making you happy, they have abandoned their high calling. When you go there, they ought to be talking about Him. It’s not about you; it’s about Him. It’s not about fixing you; it’s about exalting Him. Put Him in the right place and you’re fixed.
And this is a good place to do this – go back to verse 13 – because Jesus had just come into the district of Caesarea Philippi. Caesarea Philippi was essentially an ancient place, but it had always been known, at least for a while, under Roman power as Panias, because it was originally named for the Greek god Pan. You hear about pan flutes. Sort of a little elfish-type manufactured god who supposedly was born in a cave near this location, and so they named the town Pan. As a result of that god supposedly being born in that area and the town being named after him, it became full of idols, full of all kinds of gods. The Romans believed in many, many gods.
And now, of course, it had been changed from the name Pan to Caesarea Philippi as a way to honor Augustus Caesar. A lot of the cities were changed, as far as their name was concerned. Even Tiberius, named for another of the Caesars. We see that on the western shores of the Sea of Galilee in the time of the New Testament. So the Romans had come in, and they’d done some name-changing.
But this would be a really great place in this town - known for its origins along the lines of idolatry, a town of many idols, many temples to many idols; and now with a brand new temple to Augustus Caesar, another false god - to there declare of all places that there is only one true and living God, and He is incarnate in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. It is the place in Israel, I guess you could say, where the cultures and religions of the world met, a great place to clarify the nature of salvation and the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, as if to say, “All religion is not acceptable.”
It’s not enough to say, even as Jewish people say, that Jesus is John the Baptist, or Elijah, or Jeremiah, or some other prophet. It is only acceptable to say, “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed Prophet, Priest, and King promised in the Old Testament, the Son of the living God. You have nothing to do with dead idols.”
Go back to Isaiah 44 and read the chapter, and you’ll see the folly of idols, because in that chapter we see people taking wood, cutting the wood in half, essentially taking half of it to put in an oven to bake bread, taking the other half and turning it into a god. How ridiculous is that, out of the same piece of wood. That’s the folly of idolatry. All religion is not acceptable to God; all religion is folly. A great place to clarify the nature of true religion, true salvation, and the uniqueness of Christ - He is not like the dead idols; He is the Son of - bearing the same nature as - the living God.
In the sixth chapter of John, the issue comes up again, and Peter is speaking for the disciples after a group of so-called disciples had abandoned Jesus. Peter says to the question, “Are you going to go away also from the Lord?” “Where are we going to go? You and You alone have the words of eternal life, and we know You are the Holy One of God.” That is the confession that identifies a true believer and a true church, which is an assembly of those who confess that.
Church is not a group of people who need a motivational talk. Church is not a group of people who come together so that they can make connections in life and enrich themselves. It’s not a place where folks seeking help for their addictions can come. It’s not a place where you come to feel a little bit of a bump, maybe feel a little bit better about yourself. Somebody said the church, in a lot of cases, is like a carousel. There’s a lot of music and a lot of up-and-down, but you get off exactly where you got on.
Church is not a place where you mindlessly go through rituals. It is the assembly of those who make this the greatest of all confessions: Jesus is Lord. He is the Christ, the Son of the living God. He is the Holy One of God. And that is the confession in 1 Timothy, chapter 3; just such a powerful confession. Listen to it: “Great is the mystery of godliness.”
This is the common confession. It’s how that verse begins, verse 16, “common confession” - the common confession of the church. What is it? “The mystery of godliness.” What is that? The incarnation. And then there’s a hymn actually here, an ancient hymn speaking of the incarnation, speaking of Christ: “He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.” That is, no doubt, an early hymn. Six third-person, singular, aorist verbs with rhythm and parallelism. The subject is Christ, who is “manifest in the flesh,” that’s the incarnation; who is “justified in the Spirit,” that is declared righteous by the Spirit, who worked His work through Him; “observed by angels” at His birth, at His temptation, at His resurrection; “taken up into glory,” His ascension; and then ultimately “believed on and proclaimed among the nations” – and that went on from the end of the gospels right down to now. The church makes a unanimous confession: Jesus is the Son of the living God. He is Lord. He is Redeemer.
Not sentimentalism about a man named Jesus. Not sacramentalism about someone named Jesus, but a true and genuine life lived in union with Christ by the miracle of regeneration, which takes us out of death and joins us as one spirit with Christ.
It’s a gathering of people who say, “You’re the Christ.” It’s a gathering of people who say, “You’re the Son of God. You are Lord.” It’s a gathering of people who, like Thomas, say, “My Lord and my God.” It’s a gathering of people who say, “To whom shall we go? You and You alone have the words of eternal life.”
Everything is Christ-centered in the church. Everything is Christ-focused. It’s never about the people. It’s always about Him. And they come to exalt Him and worship Him, glorify Him and honor Him. They know their Lord, and that’s why they are there. We are those who worship in the Spirit of God.
Who do we worship? We worship Christ and have no confidence in the flesh (Philippians 3:3). That’s the foundation of the church. We make a great confession. Anytime you come in this church, that confession should be redundant, obvious, dominant.
Well, there’s a second point, but I’ll leave it until next week. And then there’s a third and a fourth and a fifth. But that’s where we begin, right?
Father, we’re so grateful. What a blessed, wonderful, enriching, fulfilling time of worship it’s been. And we pray that we mightlong remember the joys that we share together as we gather in Your name. Bless this wonderful congregation. Fill them with joy in believing, and use them for Your glory. In Christ’s name. Amen.