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One of the most important moments in the history of the world is recorded in the sixteenth chapter of Matthew’s gospel. The twelve disciples had been following Jesus for quite a while. They had listened to Him teach and they had seen Him perform miracles. The time had come for Jesus to ask two critically important questions.

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matt. 16:13–16)

This was a world-changing moment. Peter was not speaking for himself only; he was speaking for all twelve disciples. The magnitude of this moment is seen in the way Jesus responded to their confession. First, He told them it was God who had revealed His true identity to them (v. 17). Second, He told them something very important about the church (v. 18). Third, Matthew tells us it was from that time on that Jesus began foretelling His death and resurrection (v. 21).

We are Christians because we believe what the disciples believed: Jesus was and is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Through His death, burial, and resurrection from the dead—which He had predicted beforehand—Jesus paid for our sins so that we could be reconciled to God by faith alone. Our lives revolve around the fact that what Jesus predicted would happen, happened. Yet, our lives should also revolve around the other thing Jesus foretold in that moment.

Let’s return to Jesus’ response, particularly the second part. Referring to the confession Peter had made on behalf of the disciples, Jesus said, “I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (v. 18). This statement, this prediction, was no less important than anything He said about His death and resurrection. Jesus said He would build His church. That is exactly what He has been doing up to this moment, and it is exactly what He will be doing until He returns. This is important for us to understand and apply.

It is only within the context of a local church that Christians are able to obey a significant number of God’s commands.

What is the church? This question requires a complex answer because of the way the word “church” (ekklsia in Greek) is used in the New Testament. The word literally means “called-out ones.” It was commonly used to refer to a gathering of citizens in a public place, or an assembly. These aspects help us understand what Jesus meant when He said He would build His church; He meant He would build a gathering of believers.

The way the word “church” is used in the rest of the New Testament shows that Jesus’ church is really a gathering of gatherings. Sometimes the word “church” refers to all of the Christians on earth (Col. 1:18), and other times it is used to refer to a gathering of Christians in a specific location (4:15). This is why we make a distinction between the universal church and local churches; the former is made up of the latter.

There are some who argue that a person can belong to the universal church without belonging to a local church. That’s kind of like saying a football player can be in the NFL but not on a team. Now, I understand some people (perhaps you) have been hurt by a local church. The fact that this happens grieves me deeply, especially since I’m a pastor. But it doesn’t change the fact that Jesus is building His universal church by gathering people into local churches.

It is only within the context of a local church that Christians are able to obey a significant number of God’s commands. For example, it is in the context of a local church that we submit to ordained leaders (Heb. 13:17), instruct one another (Rom. 15:14), live in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16), gather for worship (Heb. 10:25), give offerings (1 Cor. 16:1–3), bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2), sing with one another (Eph. 5:19), encourage one another (1 Thess. 4:18), confess our sins to one another (James 5:16), and partake of the Lord’s Supper together (1 Cor. 11:23–34).

In fact, the missionary journeys recorded in the book of Acts were not simply evangelistic. The Apostle Paul and others not only preached the gospel but also made disciples and appointed leaders for every gathering (Acts 14:21–23). The missionary journeys were church-planting journeys. The Apostles understood that Jesus’ plan to build His universal church involved gathering more and more people into local churches all over the world.

What does this mean for us today? A commitment to Christ includes a commitment to participate in the universal church through active involvement in a local church. We should follow the lead of the Christians of the early church and invest much of our time, talent, and treasures for the sake of our local church and in church-planting efforts around the world. It means if there comes a day when we must leave a local church, our top priority must become finding another church as quickly as possible. It means we should teach our children to value our local church and help them develop a heart for church planting in our city and among the nations.

Most of all, it means that we should remember who Jesus said would build His church. He didn’t say we would do it; He said He would do it. He also promised that no one and nothing would stop Him from finishing the task. Jesus is building His church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.

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From the February 2018 Issue
Feb 2018 Issue