When Jesus Christ taught his disciples about the church in Matthew 16:18-19 he said that he would build his church, and the gates of Hades would not overpower it. While he did not go into great detail at that point about exactly how his church would be able to withstand the gates of Hades, the context does suggest that it is the nature of the foundation which will guarantee the soundness of its construction. In a very controversial statement, Jesus responded to Simon Peter who had rightly identified him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God,” by saying that he would build his church on “this rock.” What Jesus meant by this has been debated every since he said it, apparently, with 3 primary views being held. The first is that “this rock” refers to Simon Peter himself. Roman Catholics hold this view and believe that Jesus was granting to Peter the primacy which he would later wield as the 1st pope. Obviously, as Baptists, we reject the papacy and realize that even if Jesus were referring to Peter here, he was not conferring on him the authority of papal infallibility. Instead, Jesus would simply be saying that Peter, as an apostle and true confessor of Christ, would serve as a part of the foundation of the church, a point later made explicit by the apostle Paul in Ephesians 2:19-20 where he says that the church has been “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.”
Another view on the meaning of “this rock” is that Jesus was referring to himself as the true rock on which the church would be built. Again, this has the advantage of several Scriptural parallels including 1 Peter 2:7-8, “Therefore to you who believe, He is precious, but to those who are disobedient, ‘The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone,’ and ‘A stone of stumbling and a rock of offense.’” Peter is quoting from Psalm 118:22 and Isaiah 8:14, respectively, and clearly identifying Jesus Christ as a rock and the chief cornerstone, just like Paul did in Ephesians 2:20. Likewise in Romans 9:33 the apostle Paul quotes Isaiah 28:16, saying, “As it is written: ‘Behold, I lay in Zion a stumbling stone and rock of offense, and whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.’” And furthermore, Paul seems to declare that Christ himself is the church’s foundation in 1 Corinthians 3:11, “For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” It is certainly possible, maybe even likely, that Jesus is referring to himself as the rock on which the church would be built.
A third view is that “this rock” is referring to Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah who is the Son of God. This view is primarily argued from the language of Jesus’ blessing which Matthew records using two different Greek words (Petros for Peter and petra for rock). It is argued that Jesus was basically making a play on words and saying essentially, “Peter, you are Rock, and on this rock I will build my church.” In other words, it was not on Peter himself but on some aspect of Peter, his confession or his faith in Christ on which the church would be built.
What does he mean, then, when he says that the gates of Hades will not overpower the church? The gates of Hades refer to the very power of death itself, a power that would exalt itself against Jesus at his crucifixion, but which could not hold him according to Peter’s sermon on the day of Pentecost. He said in Acts 2:24 that God raised up Jesus, “having loosed the pains of death, because it was not possible that He should be held by it,” and in v.31 that David “spoke concerning the resurrection of Christ, that His soul was not left in Hades, nor did His flesh see corruption.” In a very real way, Jesus’ own resurrection was a fulfillment of his promise in Matthew 16, but that is not all. After his ascension, his followers faced the almost constant threat of persecution and death, yet they were encouraged by the fact that Jesus’ resurrection signified the defeat of death and the ultimate victory of God’s people. Paul put it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:55-57, “’O Death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?’ The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Whichever view of the term “rock” is taken, Jesus is quite clear that his church will be built and that it will not only be capable of withstanding the gates of Hades, but that it will successfully do it. The church is a divinely built institution and organism, and its ongoing strength and vitality are guaranteed by the promise of Jesus Christ himself, so that if the church could be overthrown then Christ would be seen as either inept or dishonest. Is it any wonder, then, that the church has been under almost constant attack throughout its history? What then is to be done about these attacks?
Well, one answer I have heard recently is that in the age of digital technology and world-wide communication via the internet, we need to have online gatekeepers and discernment specialists who can protect the church at large from any and every threat. Others have suggested that the church as a whole has become compromised and is therefore not to be trusted. These people usually bounce from church to church without committing themselves to any particular local body or they may refuse to associate with an assembly altogether, believing that they can maintain pure worship and edification through personal or family Bible study. However, what we are after is always what the Bible says about an issue. We would like to know how exactly Christ expected his church to withstand the gates of Hades and continue to the end of the age, but that discussion will have to wait until the next installment.