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Lesson 2: Who Needs the Church? (Matthew 16:18; Ephesians 5:25; 3:8)

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April 9, 2017

I grew up in a home where we were at church every Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday evening. I have a pin that I was awarded for seven years of perfect Sunday school attendance. I think I actually racked up eight or nine years but just didn’t get the award. Going to church every Sunday used to be what almost all Christians did. But nowadays for many Christians, the church is not very important.

I’ve read that many who claim to be born again Christians think that they’re really committed if they attend church two or three Sundays a month. Many other Christians want nothing to do with the church. They find it irrelevant and boring. Going to church messes up a much-needed weekend off. They can get what they need spiritually online. And many have been wounded by the church more than once, so they want to avoid more pain. They think, “Who needs the church?”

For others, the church is a nice slice of life, but it’s not essential. It’s not at the center. Self-fulfillment and happiness are at the center. To the extent that the church helps them feel fulfilled and happy, they attend. But if the church doesn’t deliver what they want, they either shop around for a new one or join those who have dropped out.

Many years ago in California I was having breakfast with one of our elders, who held a top administrative position with a worldwide evangelistic organization. I drew a circle on a napkin with a smaller circle in the middle and divided the rest of the circle into pie-shaped pieces. I explained to him that many Christians view the church as one piece of the pie that makes for a “full pie,” but it’s not in the center or hub.

But based on Matthew 6:33, where Jesus tells us to seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, I said that Christ and His church (His kingdom) should be at the center of that circle. Everything else should be governed by that center. Even though this elder had been through many hours of biblical training from top Bible teachers in the country, he looked at my drawing and said, “I’ve never heard anything like this before!”

In this message, I’m arguing that Christ and His body, the church, is essential, not just nice. Christ and His church should be at the center of every Christian’s life. It’s not a slice of the pie that helps round out a full life. It’s the core or center that should govern everything else. The late Anglican preacher, John Stott, put it like this (The Message of Ephesian: God’s New Society [IVP], p. 129; cited by Josh Harris, Dug Down Deep [Multnomah], p. 202):

If the church is central to God’s purpose, as seen in both history and the gospel, it must surely also be central to our lives. How can we take lightly what God takes so seriously? How dare we push to the circumference what God has placed at the centre?”

Let’s look at three reasons why the church is of utmost importance, and thus why you need it:

The church is important because Christ promised to build it, He loves His church and gave His life for her, and His church reveals Him to the lost world.

The first two reasons personally impacted me when I was in my twenties. I couldn’t shake them. I thought, “If Christ promised to build His church, then it will be built. I want to be a part of helping build His church. And, if Christ loved the church enough to die for her, and I love Christ, then I’ve got to love His church, warts and all.” The Lord’s impressing those two truths on me were what caused me to commit myself to serve the local church.

1. The church is important because Christ promised to build it.

Jesus asked His disciples (Matt. 16:13), “Who do people say that the son of Man is?” They replied (Matt. 16:14), “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” Then Jesus asked the most crucial question for every person to answer (Matt. 16:15): “But who do you say that I am?” Your eternal destiny hinges on getting that question right! Peter gave his well-known answer (Matt. 16:16): “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied (Matt. 16:17-19):

“Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, 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. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.”

Jesus here reveals four reasons why the church is important:

A. The church is important because it belongs to Christ, not to us.

Jesus calls it, “My church.” This means that it isn’t my church or your church. No pastor can claim that any church is his church. It’s Christ’s church. He bought it with His blood (Acts 20:28). It belongs exclusively to Him. No one—no matter how influential or how much money he has donated or how long his ancestors have been members of a church—can rightly claim, “This is my church!” No, it’s not! Jesus Christ owns it. He only allows us to serve in it for His kingdom purposes.

B. The church is important because it is built on the right understanding of the person of Jesus Christ.

Peter, under direct revelation from God the Father, correctly proclaims of Jesus (Matt. 16:16), “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Christ means that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah or Anointed One, prophesied about in over 300 Old Testament prophecies. For example, Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 predict the Messiah’s suffering on the cross as a sacrifice for sinners. Psalm 2 and Daniel 7 proclaim Him as the future ruler over all the kingdoms on earth. Psalm 110 reveals Him both as David’s son and David’s Lord (cf. Matt. 22:41-46).

In Zechariah 12:10 the Lord proclaims, “I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn.” That verse proclaims the deity (“Me”), death, resurrection, and future coming in glory of Messiah, resulting in a widespread conversion of the Jewish people. There are dozens more astounding prophecies that Jesus either has fulfilled or yet will fulfill.

Peter’s pronouncement that Jesus is “the Son of the living God” may have been a parallel way of saying that Jesus is the Messiah. But it also reveals Jesus to be the eternal second person of the trinity. The only way that David’s son could at the same time be David’s Lord is that He is the Lord God. When Jesus walked on the water and then stilled the storm, the disciples worshiped Him, saying (Matt. 14:33), “You are certainly God’s Son!” Jesus did not rebuke them for worshiping Him, which any reverent Jew would have done (Acts 10:25-26). Rather, as always, Jesus accepted the highest worship and praise offered to Him (John 5:23; 20:28-29). He is God in human flesh (John 1:14).

But as you probably know, these verses raise three controversial issues: Who or what is “the rock”? What are “the gates of hell”? And, what does Jesus mean by the “keys of the kingdom” and “binding and loosing”?

There are three main interpretations of Jesus’ words about Peter and the rock (I’m following James Boice, The Gospel of Matthew [Baker], 1:305-308): (1) Peter is the rock. This is the view of the Roman Catholic Church, which views Peter as the first pope and claims a direct line of succession from Peter to every pope. Even some reputable Protestant scholars identify Peter as the rock, in the sense that he was the first to make this confession and, along with the other apostles and prophets, became the foundation for the church (Eph. 2:20). But these scholars also make it clear that there is no mention here of Peter’s supreme authority or his successors.

(2) Peter’s confession is the rock. This is the main view among Protestant scholars, but also even among many early Catholic fathers. Chrysostom, for example, said (cited in Boice, 306), “He did not say upon Peter, for it was not upon the man, but upon his faith.” This is my preference. But the third view is quite similar:

(3) Christ is the rock. These scholars hold that Jesus was making a pun on Peter’s name, which means, “rock,” or “stone.” The noun which Jesus used for rock can mean, “bedrock,” or “foundation rock.” In favor of Jesus being the rock is that in Matthew 7:25, Jesus alluded to Himself as the rock on which every person should build his or her life. And in Matthew 21:42 He refers to Himself as the stone which the builders rejected, which became the chief cornerstone. Also, neither the New Testament nor Peter ever hints that he is the supreme apostle or that he is the stone on which the church is built. Rather, Peter says (1 Pet. 2:4-8) that Jesus is the living stone to whom we are to come and be built upon as a spiritual house for the Lord (Boice, 306). Certainly this is true.

This means that it is of utmost importance for the church to preserve and proclaim sound doctrine about the person of Jesus Christ. The cults and liberal Protestant churches deny His deity. But as Bishop Moule stated (preface to Robert Anderson, The Lord from Heaven), “A Savior not quite God is a bridge broken at the farther end.” There is no salvation for those who deny Jesus’ deity.

But what did Jesus mean by giving Peter “the keys of the kingdom of heaven” with the authority to bind and loose?

C. The church is important because it has the authority to proclaim God’s only way of salvation to this world that is under His judgment.

The Roman Catholic Church interprets this to mean that Peter and his successors (the popes and priests under them) have the authority to forgive or retain people’s sins (John 20:23). But since only God can see what is in human hearts (1 Sam. 16:7; 1 Cor. 2:11), no pope or priest can know enough to pronounce authoritatively that someone is forgiven or not forgiven.

Rather, Jesus meant that Peter, representing the apostles, had the authority to proclaim the gospel of forgiveness of sins to all who repent and believe in Jesus, or judgment to those who refuse to believe. In fact, we see Peter doing this with the Jews on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2), with the Samaritans (Acts 8), and with the Gentiles (Acts 10). And we have the apostolic testimony to God’s way of salvation in the New Testament. As members of the church, Christ has entrusted to us the most important message in the world: whoever believes in Jesus will not perish, but have eternal life as God’s free gift (John 3:16; Eph. 2:8-9); but those who do not believe are condemned.

D. The church is important because Christ is coming back for it and it alone will remain after this present evil world comes under judgment.

Jesus said (Matt. 16:18), “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” But what did He mean? Some argue that since “gates” do not represent an aggressive force, they symbolize death. Thus even the power of death cannot stop Jesus’ church from final victory. But this fails to recognize that in the ancient world, the city gates were the place where the government transacted official business. So it was a figure of speech for government authority, much as if we said, “The White House said ….” We mean, the governing authorities have declared something. So I think that Jesus meant that all the powers of hell cannot stop His church from ultimately triumphing over the powers of darkness.

In spite of the church’s many shortcomings and failures, eventually it will reign with Christ in glory. Evil rulers have sought to destroy the church through persecution. Atheistic communism sought to eradicate Christianity. Islam spread over North Africa, effectively wiping out the church for centuries. Hinduism dominates India. Buddhism prevails in Southeast Asia. And yet, Jesus prophesied (Matt. 24:14), “This gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all the nations, and then the end will come.” This present evil world will perish under God’s judgment (2 Pet. 3:10-12). Then (Rev. 11:15), “The kingdom of the world [will] become the kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ; and He will reign forever and ever.”

Thus the church is important because Christ promised to build it and His promise will not fail. When we commit ourselves to His church, we’re committed to the only cause that will triumph.

2. The church is important because Christ loves her and gave His life for her.

Ephesians 5:25: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” Paul goes on to state (Eph. 5:28-30), “So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body.” The church is the bride of Christ, which He loves, and the body of Christ, which He tenderly nourishes, cherishes, and cares for.

If Christ loved the church enough to die for her, then if I love Christ, I must love His church sacrificially. John Calvin (The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. by John T. McNeill [Westminster Press], 4:1:10) wrote, “Separation from the church is the denial of God and Christ.” Then, referring to Ephesians 5:23-32, he adds, “Nor can any more atrocious crime be conceived than for us by sacrilegious disloyalty to violate the marriage that the only-begotten Son of God deigned to contract with us.”

Loving Christ’s church in the abstract is easy. You may know the ditty, “To dwell above with the saints we love, O that will be glory. But to dwell below with the saints we know, well, that’s a different story!” But if the church is Christ’s bride, one flesh with Him, and we love Christ, we must love and commit ourselves to a local church and learn to work through our differences and offenses in a biblical way. We must love “the saints we know”!

3. The church is important because it reveals Christ and His glory to the lost world.

Ephesians 3:8-11: “To me, the very least of all saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ, and to bring to light what is the administration of the mystery which for ages has been hidden in God who created all things; so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places. This was in accordance with the eternal purpose which He carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Paul scrapes the heavens here, but I can only touch on it briefly (see my sermon, 12/9/07, “God’s Eternal Purpose and You,”). The church is God’s means of accomplishing His eternal purpose for creation: to exalt Christ above all (Eph. 1:9-12; Col. 1:20). The church is His temple, where He dwells and wants His glory to be manifested (Eph. 2:21). We not only reveal Christ’s glory to this lost world, but also to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places! Two thoughts:

A. To reveal Christ and His glory, we must proclaim and uphold God’s word of truth in this relativistic world.

As I pointed out last week, the church is the pillar and support of the truth (1 Tim. 3:14-16). God’s word is abundantly clear that there is a clearly defined body of spiritual and moral truth, which also means that there is such a thing as spiritual and moral error or falsehood. Satan is the father of lies, but Jesus spoke the truth and is the truth (John 8:44-45; 14:6). He prayed for His disciples (John 17:17), “Sanctify them in the truth; Your word is truth.” As the church, we are charged with upholding and proclaiming God’s truth as revealed in His word, especially with regard to the gospel and God’s moral standards.

The gospel is always under attack from different angles, because everything rides on whether or not a person has believed in the true gospel. The gospel is not about how to have a happy life or a better marriage or to raise happy kids, although it may result in those things. Rather, the gospel is about how sinners can be reconciled to a holy God through faith in the crucified and risen Savior.

But believing the gospel always results in holy living. A recent Barna survey shows that only 60% of practicing Christians believe in absolute moral truth. A recent article by the Pew Research Center stated that 51% of evangelical Protestants in the millennial generation and 36% of all evangelical Protestants believe that homosexuality should be approved by society. When the church goes along with the culture in departing from biblical truth, we no longer reveal Christ and His glory to this lost world.

B. To reveal Christ and His glory, we must be growing in Christlike character and relationships.

After stating that Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her, Paul continues (Eph. 5:26-27), “so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.” To reveal Christ to this lost world, we as His church must be growing in Christlikeness (summed up by the fruit of the Spirit), both in our character and in our relationships.

The laboratory for developing Christlike character and relationships is the home, which should be permeated with the love and grace of Christ. Husbands are to sacrificially love their wives. Wives are to respect and love their husbands. Parents should love their children and bring them up to know and love Jesus. And, a second laboratory for both developing and displaying the love of Christ is the church. As Jesus said (John 13:34-35), “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”


You need the church because it is of vital importance: Christ promised to build it; He loves it and gave Himself for it; and, His church is His means of revealing Himself to this lost world.

When Apple Computer fell on difficult times some years ago, their young chairman, Steven Jobs, went to New York to try to convince Pepsico’s John Sculley to move west and run the struggling computer company.

As they sat in Sculley’s penthouse office overlooking the Manhattan skyline, Sculley started to decline the offer. He said that Apple would have to offer him an astronomical salary and benefit package. Flabbergasted, Jobs gulped and agreed—if Sculley would move to California. But Sculley would only commit to being a consultant from New York.

Then a frustrated Jobs confronted Sculley: “Do you want to spend the rest of your life selling sugared water, or do you want to change the world?” It knocked the wind out of Sculley. He hadn’t thought of it that way. He accepted the offer and moved west. (From, Leadership, Spring, 1991, p. 44.)

Many Christians don’t put the local church at the center of their lives because they’re too focused on themselves and they don’t understand why the church is important. We have a far greater purpose than making and marketing computers, I-phones, and I-pads. The church is at the center of God’s eternal plan for this world. I urge you to commit yourself to the church to help it become all that God wants it to be.

Application Questions

  1. Have you ever been tempted to drop out of the church (or actually dropped out)? Why? How did you work through it?
  2. What should a Christian do when another believer in the church causes offense or hurt? Is it ever right to just go to another church? Why/why not?
  3. Is there a difference between loving another Christian and liking him (or her)? If so, what is the difference?
  4. Practically, what does it mean to put Christ and His church in the center of your life? What would you need to change to do this?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2017, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Ecclesiology (The Church)

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