Sunday Morning Greek Blog

November 9, 2021

I Will Build My Church (Matthew 16:13-20)

Filed under: Greek — Scott Stocking @ 5:38 pm
Tags: , ,

Note: Preached at Mt. View Presbyterian Church, Omaha, NE, on 11/7/21; also planned for Wheeler Grove Church, Carson, IA, 11/14/21.

I’ve got a little trivia challenge for you this morning. I’m going to give you the names of a couple people who built or created famous things in the last 100 years that are still with us today, but whose names have been long forgotten by most.

The first may be familiar to some: Gutzon Borglum was born in Idaho and lived in Fremont, Nebraska, when he was 7 years old. He eventually became a famous artist, achieving early fame for painting a portrait of General John C. Fremont for the general’s wife. He later sculpted a colossal head of Abraham Lincoln, which is still on display today in the Capitol Rotunda. This inspired his most famous work, however, which perhaps now you’ve guessed: the four super colossal heads of American presidents carved into Mount Rushmore.

Joseph Baermann Strauss answered the call to build an impressive structure that, interestingly enough, also had a connection to General Fremont. Strauss’s task was to connect the two shores on either side of a strait in a region General Fremont had named “Chrysopylae.” Politicians of the day thought the structure would have a price tag of nearly $100,000,000 in his day, but Strauss was able to build it for the modest price of about $30,000,000. Oh for politicians who could create such infrastructure savings in our day! Chrysopylae is Greek for “Golden Gate,” and thus was origin of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

So we come to our passage today where someone whose name we haven’t forgotten, and I hope we haven’t forgotten “who” he is, wants to build something greater and more enduring than either of these creations.

Read Matthew 16:13–20

This passage is at the heart of Matthew’s gospel and reveals that “Aha!” moment for the disciples when they finally realize who Jesus is and what his mission is on Earth. To put it in context, it comes after the stories where Jesus feeds both the 5,000 and 4,000, with his walking on water in between. Immediately after this Caesarean confession, we have the story of the Transfiguration, where he proves beyond a shadow of doubt who Peter says he is.

In light of the events leading up to the passage, Jesus gives his disciples a little quiz, as it were. “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They of course give a variety of wild guesses, I mean, answers from the broad extent of Jewish history: Elijah? Jeremiah or one of the prophets? John the Baptist? For whatever reason, the disciples can’t seem to bring themselves to admit what they’ve begun suspecting all along. Notice, though, how Jesus makes a subtle shift in his second quiz question. He doesn’t ask the disciples who they say the Son of Man is: He asks them, “Who do you say I am?”

Simon Peter answers, perhaps hoping he won’t stick his foot in his mouth as he’s prone to do. Now there were actually two Simons among the disciples: Simon the Zealot and Simon Peter. Matthew doesn’t call him “Simon” much in his gospel, only a couple times early on to show there were two Simons among the disciples and one more time in chapter 17. Here in vs. 16, this is the first and only time Matthew uses both names side by side in introducing Jesus’s statement where he officially renames Simon to Peter.

Peter does NOT stick his foot in his mouth on this occasion (but does in the very next section!), and Jesus makes a word play out of his name. Peter’s name in Greek (Πέτρος, petros), if it were just a regular noun, would mean something akin to “boulder,” while the word for “rock” (πέτρα, petra) upon which Jesus says he’ll build his church most likely refers to the concept of “bedrock,” the hard granite that you see, for example, at the bottom of the Grand Canyon that the Colorado River has cut through.

At this point in the passage, we have at least two major questions to answer: What exactly is the “rock” that Jesus refers to here, and what does it mean that Jesus will “build” (οἰκοδομεω, oikodomeō) his “church” (ἐκκλησία, ekklēsia)?

What (or Who) Is the “Rock”?

Believers through the ages who may or may not have engaged in theological studies have debated just what the “rock” symbolizes here. Since they’re in Caesarea Philippi at this point, it’s generally agreed that it’s not referring to any kind of physical location nearby, although there was a cave in that region that had been dubbed “the Gate of Hades” by some.

Some have seen here a direct connection to Peter, citing Peter’s sermon in Acts 2, where we see the first mass conversion of people from all over to being Jesus followers. The Catholics take this a step farther and list Peter as the first Pope. And Jesus even tells Simon Peter that he’ll give him the keys to the kingdom. But since Jesus says, “I will build my church,” it seems unlikely that he would impart that responsibility to one man.

Ephesians 2:20 broadens this concept a bit and says that the church is built “on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” This has merit on a couple levels for understanding what “rock” means. First, assigning responsibility for the church to a group of contemporary apostles creates a system of accountability so that no one person is initially responsible for establishing “the church.” Second, this passage is the only time in the gospels where we see the word “church” used, and in the context of the story, the NT church hadn’t even started yet! However, in the Greek version of the OT, the word translated “church” here was often used of the “congregation” of Israel. That would make the connection to the prophets. Third, since Paul describes Christ as the “chief cornerstone,” Christ is the one that sets the standard by which the rest of the “church” is measured and built.

Still others suggest that this “rock” is the truth of Peter’s confession, or more broadly, the teachings of Jesus which feature prominently in Matthew’s gospel. In the church I attend, we ask a new convert if they believe that “Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” This would also fit with Romans 10:9-10: “If you declare with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.”

Now just as God never wanted Israel to have an earthly king, so also do I think that Jesus never wanted one man (other than himself) to have authority over all believers. I think a combination of the last two views I mentioned is probably the best understanding of “rock” here: the church would have a solid foundation, and those who would become “bricks” in its construction have means of doing so by acknowledging the cornerstone.

What Does Jesus Mean by “Build”?

This brings us to the second question: what does Jesus mean when he says, “I will build my church.” Just as this larger passage is the crux of Matthew’s gospel, so is this statement a crux between the ministry of Jesus on earth and the ministry of his church after his death. Now I’ve already mentioned that this passage is the only place in the gospels where the word church is used. Of course, the gospels were written after the church was formed, so it’s not too surprising to find it here. After all, as I said earlier, it may be reasonable to assume Jesus was referring to the congregation of Israel.

But what you may not know is that the word “build” or “building” in the gospels always refers to a physical building. So it’s worth asking, at least for the moment, if perhaps Jesus himself was referring to some kind of building, like a temple or a synagogue, when he made this statement. As you might guess, though, it’s pretty clear that Jesus isn’t referring to a building at all, but to his followers, a “congregation,” if you will.

1 Corinthians 1:2

Overlapping structure of the verse

A         To the “called” (“church”) ekklēsia
      B         of God
            C         sanctified (i.e., “made holy”)
      B′     in Christ Jesus
A′     “called”
            C′     holy (=sanctified)
A″     those who “call upon”
      B″     the name of our Lord Jesus Christ

Above, you’ll see a small chart on 1 Corinthians 1:2. I believe Paul here is drawing on the root meaning of ekklēsia, which is the word we translate “church” in the NT. It literally means “those called out from.” Paul uses a rhetorical device of his day to define who the church is, a sort of reverse parallel structure that suggests he put some thought into this. You can see it in the chart with the parallel elements identified by the capital letters: “To the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ—their Lord and ours.” The church is made up of those who are called to be holy, and who call upon the name of Jesus.

Now I do want to offer a bit of a caveat here: just because “church” refers to people doesn’t mean the concept of a church building should be tossed out the window. Even in Paul’s day, the believers met in their respective homes or early on, even in the synagogues, so those who gathered had a place they could identify as their spiritual home and could use as a central place to carry out ministry to their respective communities. I’ve heard a lot of people say they don’t need to belong to a church to be a Christian, but it sure makes it easier to live the Christian life if you have a place you can call home and where you know that you’ll be welcome good times or bad.

This idea of “church” being people or a congregation is borne out when we look at the words “build” and “building” in Paul’s letters. With just a few exceptions in some OT references, these words NEVER refer to a physical building, but to the people who make up the “church” or to the concepts that support the truth of the Christian message. And several times, the words are used with the word for “church.” Let’s look at some of these passages. In these contexts, often these words are translated as “edify,” “edification,” “strengthen,” or some other synonym.

Let’s look first at how this concept of “building” or “edifying” relates to the church.

In Acts 9:31, shortly after Paul’s Damascus Road conversion, Luke mentions that “the church…enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened.”

In Paul’s farewell address to the Ephesian believers in Acts 20:32, he concludes, “Now I commit you to God and to the word of his grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified.”

In 1 Corinthians 3:9, Paul tells the Corinthian believers: “For we are coworkers in God’s service; you are God’s field, God’s building.

Later in chapter 14, Paul exhorts the Corinthians on the matter of tongues and prophecy in their gatherings, capturing the concept of “edification” several times, including vs. 26: “When you come together….everything must be done so that the church may be built up.

I’ve already mentioned Ephesians 2, but later in chapter 4, Paul says this: “From him [Jesus] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work.”

Acts 2:42 shows us how the church functioned in the early days after Peter’s Pentecost sermon. “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the fellowship of the breaking of the bread, and to the prayers.” These “prayers” were probably the daily prayers in the Temple. That was probably the only place big enough to accommodate 3,000 new converts! Acts 2 goes on to say how they met together in homes and had everything in common, taking turns sharing meals in their homes.

In other verses, we see the “how” of edification. In Romans 15:20, Paul speaks of his desire to preach where no one else has so he’s not building on someone else’s foundation. In 1 Corinthians 8:1, he says “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” Twice in 2 Corinthians, Paul mentions his authority to “build up” believers through preaching and exhortation that may have been difficult for that church to accept, preaching that stepped on their toes, if you will. In Galatians 2:18, Paul is “building” an argument for justification by faith as opposed to the Law. And in Ephesians 4:29, Paul says our speech should be wholesome, “Helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

We see the many ways that we can be the church and that Christ builds his church through us, not just amongst ourselves, but out in the mission field of our immediate circle of influence. To borrow a phrase from my wife’s profession, these are the “activities of daily living” for the Christian: sharing the good news with those who’ve never heard it; showing love, care, and compassion; having the difficult conversations with those who need strong encouragement; defending the truth of God’s word; and taming our tongues.

Now there’s one more concept in this passage we need to address. After Jesus says he will build his church, he adds the promise that “the Gates of Hades will not overcome it.” It’s important that we understand just what this means. When Jesus says “will not overcome it,” he’s not talking about hell advancing on the church, trying to destroy it. He’s really talking about the church advancing on the gates of Hades, which do not have the strength to withstand the advance of God’s people, God’s army. Ephesians says God has given “incomparably great power for us who believe,” so we should never think that Satan will win. We look forward to the kingdom of heaven with its pearl gates that open to streets of gold (see what I did there?).

Joseph Strauss wrote a couple poems about the Golden Gate Bridge upon its completion. One stanza from The Mighty Task Is Done struck me as being particularly relevant for the Church because it can allude to the battles we face each day, and I’ll close with this:

An Honored cause and nobly fought

And that which they so bravely wrought,

Now glorifies their deed,

No selfish urge shall stain its life,

Nor envy, greed, intrigue, nor strife,

Nor false, ignoble creed.

Peace to all of you, and thank you for allowing me to share with you again.

Scott Stocking

My opinions are my own.

Leave a Comment »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Website Powered by

%d bloggers like this: