apon this rocke I wyll bylde my congregacion. And the gates of hell shall not prevayle ageynst it. (William Tyndales Translation) 1526
and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. KJV (King James Version) 1611
on this rock that I will build my church, and the powers of hell will not conquer it. ISV (International Standard Version) 1973
on this rock I will build My assembly, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against her. LITV (Literal Version) 1985
upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. RV (Revised Version) 1989
upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. ASV (American Standard Version) 1901
On this rock I will build my church, and death itself will not have any power over it. CEV (Contemporary English Version) 1995
on this rock I will build My church, and the forces of Hades will not overpower it. HCSB (Holman Christian Standard Bible) 2004
These are some of the historical and reputable translations of this verse. This simple verse with just a few words has generated three theological controversies for those determined to understand its message. Many are not concerned. The first of these has to do with the identification of the "rock." The second is the nature of the church (ekklesia). The third is the question of succession or perpetuity. For the purpose of this article I will focus mainly on the last two. My simple conclusion is that our Lord intended His church to be the institution to perpetuate the Gospel message, His teachings, and all of the sacred scriptures until He returned. We see it fulfilled in the world today. An understanding of the nature of the church is foundational to the question of succession or perpetuity.
THE IDENTITY OF THE "ROCK"
Debate has raged over this part of the statement. There are three proposed interpretations of the identity of the rock, none of which are entirely satisfactory. However I will try to summarize them:
1. The rock is Peter. This appeals to the papal claim. It is the tradition and claim of the Roman church that Peter founded the church in Rome, served as its first pope, and was martyred there. But the New Testament refers only to some house churches in the city and there is controversy concerning Peter ever being in Rome. I can not imagine him in the role of pope when he referred to all believers as a "royal priesthood," "an holy priesthood" (I Peter 2:5,9). The counter to this interpretation of the "rock" is based on the significance of the name Peter being interpreted as "a little stone" and the "rock" being distinguished as a foundation.
2. The "rock" is Christ Himself. This is based on the Scripture that describes Christ as "the cornerstone." "The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone," and "A stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall." I Peter 2:7, 8 (NIV)
3. The "rock" is the simple and comprehensive confession of Peter. The promise is made immediately after Peter's statement of faith. "Thou art the Christ, the son of the living God." (Matt.16:16) Jesus regarded it as a powerful and summary testimony. This would include: the fulfillment of Old Testament Scriptures that the Saviour has come; the deity of our Lord; and by implication the whole Christian message. It recognizes Him as the Messiah- the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. It recognizes His deity as the Son of the living God. Mathew Henry seems to reconcile the different views as he concludes that "the New Testament charter is here delivered to Peter as an agent, but to the use and behoof of the church in all ages, according to the purposes therein specified and contained. Now it is here promised." He thus recognizes the importance of the confession and the person and work of Peter.
THE NATURE OF THE CHURCH
The emphasis here is on the "My." The Jews had their religious institution in the synagogue. The pagan world had their institution in the Greek assembly. Our Lord's institution would be different both in purpose and survival permanence. The triune God created the institutions of marriage, family and home. Jesus, during His earthly ministry created the institution of the church. You will notice from the translations, that two give meaning to the ekklesia as a congregation or assembly. The Literal Translation and Tyndale give meaning to the Greek word whereas others have ignored its meaning and assigned the convenient word "church." It is unfortunate that most of the translators have used the word "church," a word derived from foreign languages with several different meanings, instead of congregation or assembly.
The simple word "church" ("ekklesia"=assembly) has acquired various interpretations. In the Greek speaking world, the meaning is clear- a gathering of citizens for governing purposes. To many or most evangelicals it is equated with the kingdom of God or the family of God. The two are decidedly different. The kingdom is made up of all believers. The church is the permanent institution to promote the work of the kingdom. To others, an understanding that this word was used in the institutional sense retains the meaning of the word ekklesia. If this idea of an institution seems strange or difficult, consider some of these examples where I am reminded of how "church" as an institution is used in everyday language just as we would think of family, home, marriage, etc. in everyday conversation. Here are some examples I have heard or read recently:"mellowing of the church"I can only understand these expressions or their characteristics in the institutional sense. They are general in nature and apply across the board. But the thing that settles it for me is our Lord's second use of the word in dealing with the problem of church discipline in Matt. 18:17: "tell it to the church" which could only refer to a gathered congregation and not to any particular congregation, but the institution wherever it was manifested. It was a particular instruction with previous conditions. Our Lord foresaw the fulfillment of His promise in the future as the institution developed polity under the direction of the apostles. With our Lord's clarity on the matter, I can find no compelling reason to think that the apostle Paul used the word any differently in Ephesians and Colossians. The choice is to either accept the word in its original meaning or introduce a new concept, alien to its meaning, of an unassembled assembly.
"the persecuted church"
"the Eastern church"
"the Roman church"
"the American Church"
"the church covenant"
"the Christian's conduct in the church"
"the underground church" "the doctrines of the church"
I am aware that some of our early Southern Baptist theologians saw this differently. My own speculation is that they were strongly influenced by Reformed theology which was great in the field of soteriology - the doctrine of salvation. But they were not the last word on ecclesiology - the doctrine of the church. Reformed theologians did not hold to any Baptist distinctives. Earlier northern Baptist theologians and their positions are not apparent in the ecclesiology conclusions of some of the influential Southern Baptist theologians. Dr. Jesse B. Thomas, professor, lecturer, and influential pastor had written a masterful work distinguishing the church from the kingdom of God. (The Church and the Kingdom) in 1914. Dr. E. J. Fish, Baptist pastor and leader with Michigan Baptists wrote a definitive book on the nature of the church (Ecclesiology) in 1875. The authors in these works arrived at a different conclusion in describing the nature of the church. Even the eminent Anglican theologian, Dr. F. J. A. Hort did not treat the ekklesia in this passage any differently.
SUCESSION OR PERPETUIY
Having laid the foundation for this discussion we come now to explore the subject of this article. In Robertson's Word Pictures we learn that "Hades is technically the unseen world, the Hebrew Sheol, the land of the departed, that is death." So I understand the expression "gates of hades" as a metaphorical expression to include all the forces of evil arrayed against the church. Communism, Islam, or the spirit of anti-christ (I John 4:7 and II John, 7) will not prevail in the battle. They will not succeed in extinguishing the church. A few statements may help us understand this issue.
1. Christ's church is one that corresponds to His message and the character of the New Testament churches. There comes a time when a church ceases to qualify for that claim. The Laodicean church was one that He would "spew out of His mouth" (Revelation 3:16) unless they repented. The Jerusalem and Corinthian church had problems but they worked them out. A church doesn't have to be perfect for Him to own it. Our own imperfections exemplify that truth.
2. Churches do cease to exist, but the institution does not. Persecution may wipe out an assembly. Economics and mobility may also have success. Mergers and closings may do the same. I was raised in a community where all I knew was the village Methodist Church. It was not until a few years ago in searching the community history that I discovered the existence of an earlier Baptist Church. I was pastor of a church that later merged with another and regrettably forsook their witness in that city.
3. A church does not have to be advertised as "Baptist" to be a New Testament Church. The simple definition of the New Testament church held by Baptists has been "a congregation of baptized believers." Many of our churches go by the title "community" but hold to Baptist beliefs and affiliation. Some Baptist churches have forsaken Baptist distinctives and should not be considered a New Testament church.
4. All Papal dissenting groups of earlier history do not necessarily qualify as New Testament churches. This is not to claim or assert that there were no individual congregations that might, regardless of the leader's role in describing the movement. Our Lord's assertion of perpetuity supersedes the speculations of the historians.
5. Nothing in our text requires a literal succession of church organizations, Papal or otherwise. Denominations die, just as congregations do when they forsake the Gospel message. Some mainline denominations today are experiencing decline and decay for that reason.
6. The promise is that His institution would not cease to exist until He comes again. We see that played out in history. We have often heard that "the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church." In our day we see the "house church" movement in areas of wide persecution. As new believers discover from the Scriptures their responsibility to confess Christ in baptism, they are not content until they obey and then they seek a like minded group. Regrettably not all churches accept the responsibility to shepherd that new convert.
Succession implies an unbroken line of continuity. It is unnecessary and foolish for churches to make such a claim on the basis of this text or the findings of historical research. Perpetuity suggests the permanence of the institution - that it will not pass away. It did not disappear in the Dark Ages and then be resurrected later. In all ages there have been "congregations of baptized believers" somewhere in the world. That is clearly the intent of this promise. When new believers study the Scriptures they discover the marks or pattern for a New Testament church. They become aware of the necessity and importance of the ekklesia. The obedience of baptism is the ceremonial door into that fellowship. This is that fellowship that becomes Christ's ekklesia. I suspect that as the missionary movement reaches the different people groups of the world, there will be churches with strange names to us, but hopefully many will seek the New Testament pattern. I am reminded of Paul's persuasion "that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature" (Romans 8:38, 39) could separate him from the Saviour's love. This is applicable to every true believer and the same words can be applied to the permanence of the church. None of these forces will prevail against the church.
[Used with permission. Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]
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