A weekly Bible reading for Bridge Builders
Reading – A Suffering Saviour, and a Called Out People (Matthew 16:13-28)
This is a key passage in helping us understand the purposes of God in Christ and in his disciples. Until now Jesus has preached the message of the kingdom, demonstrating its presence by his teaching, healing and casting out of demons (Luke.11:20). Now he had established his identity among his closest followers he began to emphasise the Cross as the way he must go in order to establish this kingdom (Mt.16:21).
Peter’s confession marked a turning point after which Jesus more clearly taught about the principles on which the kingdom was to be established and the role of the called out people of God in advancing it. There has been much controversy over what was meant when Jesus spoke of the foundation of the church. Was it Peter; nicknamed “the Rock”, as claimed by Roman tradition? Was it the revelation alluded to when Jesus said, “This was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven”, as claimed by the Mormons? Was it the act of confession that is the starting point of every Christian life, as suggested by others? Paul wrote to the Corinthians:
“By the grace God has given me, I laid a foundation, as an expert builder, and someone else is building on it. But each one should be careful how he builds. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ” (1 Co.3:10-11)
Christ himself, then, is the rock on which the church is built and any other, as Paul wrote, would be destroyed by the fire of judgement when every man’s work will be tested (1 Co.3:12-13).
Jesus goes on to give the keys of the kingdom of heaven and the power to “bind and loose”. Again there is speculation about what these keys are and who legitimately commands that power. Is it given to one man to issue forgiveness or judge the sinner? This idea came late in church history and has more to do with the rise of political power in Rome than the wielding of heavenly authority. If we think of it as authority to announce and declare rather than one to determine guilt or innocence we may see the first Christians (about 120 of them Acts 1:15) exercising that authority at Pentecost where they declared the good news of the kingdom. As the Body of Christ Christians exercise such authority today in declaring the good news and the closer we walk with Christ who is our Head the more authentic our claim to be speaking him.
When Jesus declared “on this rock I will build my church” the word translated “church” is ekklēsia. An ekklēsia is an assembly or congregation and in the ancient world it identified an assembly of free voting citizens in a city. The church then is the gathering of the called out people of God who are marked out by their rights as citizens in God’s kingdom. It is not a building, or an institution with hierarchies of authority but the people of God expressing the kingdom of God in the world. This expression of God’s kingdom involves being Jesus to other people, expressing our faith in the way we live every day and so continuing to declare the good news in word and deed.
There is also a process of sanctification in which the Christian becomes more like Jesus who said:
“If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it” (Mt.16:24-25)
Christians are called to go on with God and some people struggle with the faith when they see the gap between what we are today and what God has called us to be. But our lives are a journey and it has been wisely observed that we are pilgrims and not settlers in this world. In that journey of faith we are to lose our lives. This does not mean martyrdom, although many continue to die for their faith in Christ. Neither does it mean losing our identity but it means losing our old self with its sinful way of life in our striving to find our new selves in Christ. Jesus said, “What good will it be if a man gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul (or self)”. It is this last, Christ like self that we lose if we set our hearts on the things of this world.
To gain the kingdom involves denying our worldly selves. This does not mean a life of misery on iron rations. Paul helps us see what is meant here when he writes to Timothy:
“Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment” (1 Tim.6:17)
Self-denial is not the same as refusing any of the good things given by God for our enjoyment but the refusal to put our trust in these things. To trust in the things of the world leads to living by the standards of the world, indulging in greed, envy, arrogance, bitterness, self-pity and pride, none of which are the fruit of the Spirit of God (Gal.5:16-26).
Christians are a people who take up their cross daily by denying themselves and choosing God’s way, declaring salvation for all who believe and keeping close to Jesus as we strive to model our ways on him. We mustn’t allow the world to judge us and neither must we judge ourselves so harshly as to make ourselves lose heart. But we must judge wisely as we make our way in this world, always willing to lay down those things that hinder us and daily taking up our cross to follow him and win others to him.