Ted W. McElroy
No man can be a part of the church and ignore Christ. No man can have Christ and ignore the church. This vital lesson of the relationship between Christ and the church is taught in Matthew 16:13-20.
To center the minds of the apostles upon this fact, Jesus asked them, “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” They gave a variety of answers in reply, “Some say John the Baptist; some Elijah; others Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Men were not agreed on this religious question; neither are they agreed on any other major question of religion. Indeed, they are not even agreed on the existence of God. When you ask today concerning what men say about a religious question, you will be certain to receive many answers contradictory, the one to the others.
When Jesus asked the disciples, “Who say ye that I am?” the impetuous Peter answered and said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.” To this noble acknowledgement, the others all agreed. Jesus then said, “Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father who is in heaven.” There is found here a good lesson on unity and division. When Jesus asked concerning the opinion of men, there was division in the answer. Men, following their own human reasoning, could not agree. But when He asked the same question of the disciples, they with one consent agreed (Peter acting as spokesman) that He was “the Christ.” Jesus said that their knowledge came from God, not man. Theirs was by revelation, not by the processes of human reasoning and judgment. Human reasoning led to false conclusions; divine revelation made known the truth.
Following the statement concerning the source of their knowledge (i.e., that it had come from God) Jesus promised to build His church, “And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” Jesus promised to build His church. It is, therefore, Christ’s church; which is exactly what Paul called it when he said, “The churches of Christ salute you” (Rom. 16:16). Any institution not built by Christ, not wearing Christ’s name, is a false church. Calvin, Luther, Wesley and others were never authorized by the God of heaven to build any kind of church; and their institutions bear no relationship at all to the church that Christ built.
There has been great controversy over the question, “What is the foundation of the church?” Catholics have tried to establish the doctrine of the primacy of Peter, asserting that Christ in this passage promised to build the church upon Peter as the foundation. They say that the Greek word for Peter is a word meaning rock, and that Peter is the rock upon which the church was built. Their argument is erroneous. The word Peter and the word rock are not identical words, either in the Greek or the English. The Greek word for Peter (Petros) is masculine gender, and means “a pebble or fragment of rock.” But the word Christ used in this passage is not petros but petra. Now petra is feminine gender and means “a solid ledge of rock.” The Greek words, therefore, are different in gender and in definition; they are no more synonymous than are the English words Peter and rock. Jesus Christ and the immutable truth of His divinity provides the foundation of the church. Any other foundation could not stand.
That Christ is the foundation, which cannot be shaken, was prophesied by Isaiah: “Therefore saith the Lord Jehovah, behold I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, and a precious cornerstone of sure foundation: he that believeth shall not be in haste” (Isa. 28:16). This prophecy can belong to no one but Christ, to whom it is often applied in the New Testament. Paul taught that there is no other foundation, “For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:11). These scriptures exclude the idea that Peter or any other man has ever been the foundation of the church; the only foundation of the true church is Jesus Christ. If you are building on any other foundation, you are building on the sand.
Some religionists have based a false doctrine upon the clause, “The gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” They cite this passage in efforts to prove church succession or perpetuity. They say that the promise means that the church must always exist, and that therefore the church can be traced through succession back to the days of the apostles. Their position is contrary to the facts of history and their idea of church succession is not supported by the word of God. The erroneous argument is based on the assumption that the pronoun it refers back to, and has for its antecedent, the word church. But this is obviously false from the fact that the church has never pressed the gates of Hades either trying to get into it or out of it. At no time has the kingdom on earth been trying to get out of it. This is proof that the pronoun it does not refer back to the church.
To what, then, does it refer? The word refers to the building of the church by Christ. The “gates of Hades” were not powerful enough to prevent Jesus from building His church. Hades is the place of departed spirits. Jesus was crucified, His spirit went into Hades, but the gates of Hades could not hold Him prisoner; He came forth after three days, conqueror over death, Hades, and the grave. On the following Pentecost He built His church according to the promise He had made to the disciples.
Binding And Loosing
After declaring that he would build the church in spite of “the gates of Hades,” Jesus described the work of the apostles in these words, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven.” Some people want to restrict this power to the apostle Peter alone. But as is clearly shown in Matthew 18:17, this “binding and loosing” power was given to all the apostles alike. There is nothing on this point to sustain the doctrine of the supremacy of Peter. All the apostles had exactly the same power that he had.
The keys given to the apostles symbolize their authority to declare the terms of entrance and the conditions of continued fellowship in the kingdom of God. The first announcement of the terms of entrance into the church was made by Peter on Pentecost (Acts 2). The conditions of continued fellowship with Christ are also given by Peter (2 Pet. 1:5-8) as well as by all the other writers in numerous places. These terms and conditions cannot be set aside; they are bound on earth, because they were first bound in heaven.