Note—This article is the second in a series entitled “In Search of Church.” To go to the beginning of the series, click here.
“Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Clearly, love for your neighbor is a core concept of Christianity, and I expect you’d have a hard time finding anyone who would disagree. Which is another way of saying that everyone acknowledges the importance of relationships.
So, it’s not surprising to see the emphasis they receive in churches. At every level, from sermon series on Sunday Morning, all the way down to small group meetings throughout the week, churches devote a lot of time and energy to the development of relationships.
Yet, in spite of all this, relationships are a persistent challenge for most churches. Sure, people may have close friends at the church they attend. They may be in a group where people even know the difficulties and frustrations they face at work, or some of the struggles they have with their children, or in their marriage. But that’s a long way from the depth of community found in the church shortly after it was established:
And the congregation of those who believed were of one heart and soul; and not one of them claimed that anything belonging to him was his own, but all things were common property to them. And with great power the apostles were giving testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and abundant grace was upon them all. For there was not a needy person among them, for all who were owners of land or houses would sell them and bring the proceeds of the sales and lay them at the apostles’ feet, and they would be distributed to each as any had need. (Acts 4:32–35 NAS95)
How many churches do you know that fit this description?
Not many, I’d guess. In every church I’ve ever been a part of, there were always those people who didn’t play well with others; those certain combinations of members that you could expect to produce tension and conflict. In some cases, there were even long–standing hostilities simmering in the background.
Against such experiences, the description of that early church seems utopian. Admittedly, the situation there will soon deteriorate, but for now, we should recognize that it is achievable. It is not merely an ideal always to be pursued, but never reached.
So, what was the secret? How was such community possible?
To answer that, we need and look at the conditions that produced it, all the way back to Jesus’ statement of His determination to build the church—
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
And Jesus said to him, “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.”
Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ. (Matthew 16:13–20 NAS95)
At issue is Jesus’ identity—“Who is He?”
The public at large had various ideas —John the Baptist, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the other prophets. But when Jesus probed the disciples’ understanding, Peter correctly identified Him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Unfortunately, the real significance of this seems lost on us today. But Jesus makes a big deal of it. Because of Peter’s response, Jesus calls him “Blessed,” and says this is not something he learned from man—it was revealed to Peter personally by the Father. As a result of Peter’s response, Jesus renames him, and somehow links this to the founding of His church. We’ll come back to that connection in a minute, but, first, let’s pause to understand the weight of Peter’s confession.
We typically treat the term “Christ” as something akin to a last name for Jesus, but it’s not. It is derived from the Greek word christos, which means “anointed one.” And, christos is, itself, the Greek translation of the Hebrew word messiach which also means “anointed one.” So, Peter’s recognition of Jesus as the Christ is, in reality, the recognition of Jesus as the Messiah.
Ok, so how big a deal is that?
Well, as the Story unfolds through the Old Testament, one of the primary threads around which it develops is the Promise of One Who Will Come. It is in Him that all the hope of the Old Testament rests. We might summarize the promises concerning Him as follows:
- He will crush the Enemy
- He will overcome the Curse with Blessing
- He will establish the perfect Kingdom, characterized by righteousness, justice, and peace.
- He will restore harmony in Creation.
- He will suffer for the reconciliation and restoration of individuals.
By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the people of Israel were particularly focused on the Kingdom aspect of the promises. Of course, the Kingdom would require the arrival of the King—or Anointed One. It was because of this expectation that they referred to Him as the Messiah, a title taken from Psalm 2:
“The kings of the earth take their stand
And the rulers take counsel together
Against the LORD and against His Anointed…” Psalms 2:2 (NAS95)
This expectation of this Anointed One was so prominent that when John the Baptist became publicly known, everyone wondered whether he might be the One:
“Now while the people were in a state of expectation and all were wondering in their hearts about John, as to whether he was the Christ…” Luke 3:15 (NAS95)
Later, John himself will ask the same question of Jesus:
Now when John, while imprisoned, heard of the works of Christ, he sent word by his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” Matthew 11:2–3 (NAS95)
It is this issue—Jesus identity as the Christ— that drove the religious leaders hatred of Him and led them to crucify Him:
But Jesus kept silent. And the high priest said to Him, “I adjure You by the living God, that You tell us whether You are the Christ, the Son of God.”
Jesus said to him, “You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you will see THE SON OF MAN SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF POWER, and COMING ON THE CLOUDS OF HEAVEN.”
Then the high priest tore his robes and said, “He has blasphemed! What further need do we have of witnesses? Behold, you have now heard the blasphemy; what do you think?”
They answered, “He deserves death!”
Then they spat in His face and beat Him with their fists; and others slapped Him, and said, “Prophesy to us, You Christ; who is the one who hit You?” Matthew 26:63–68 (NAS95)
And the people stood by, looking on. And even the rulers were sneering at Him, saying, “He saved others; let Him save Himself if this is the Christ of God, His Chosen One.” The soldiers also mocked Him, coming up to Him, offering Him sour wine, and saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!”
Now there was also an inscription above Him, “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” One of the criminals who were hanged there was hurling abuse at Him, saying, “Are You not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!”” Luke 23:35–39 (NAS95)
There are many more passages we could look at, but suffice it to say that Peter’s identification of Jesus as The Christ is a big deal. All of Christianity turns upon it.
So, let’s return to Peter’s statement.
Because of his correct identification of Jesus as the Christ, Jesus renames him. Up to this point he had been known as Simon, but now, Jesus gives him the name petros, which means a rock, or bolder. Jesus then goes on to say that on this petra (large rock, bedrock) He will build His church.
So, how do we understand Jesus’ words? Does He mean that Peter (petros) is the rock (petra) upon which He will build His church?
No. If that is what He had meant, we would expect the same word (petra) for both Peter’s name, and for the rock upon which the church would be built. Peter is not the rock, yet somehow, his identification of Jesus as the Christ is connected to the rock on which the church is built.
This could lead to a very long theological explanation, but the simple answer is this—
Jesus, as the Christ, will reconcile us to the Father and restore (transform) us. As the Christ He will crush the Enemy (Satan). As the Christ He will restore God’s rule over creation, establishing the perfect Kingdom, and bringing blessing in place of the Curse. All of this is wrapped up in what it means for Him to be the Christ. And it is this authority of the Christ that He speaks of, after His resurrection, when He says, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18).
And it is as the Christ—the One Who has supreme authority—that He is given to the church:
These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:19–23 NAS95)
Although the metaphor is different in this passage (body instead of building), the truth is consistent. As the Christ, all things are subjected to Jesus, and as the Christ, He is the head of the church. In this metaphor the church is connected to Christ as the body is connected to the head. There is a lot of theology in this metaphor, but for our current discussion, the point is that the church exists in vital connection with Christ. Or, in the words Jesus uses with Peter, the church is built on Him—the Rock that is Jesus, the Christ.
So, why does Jesus rename Peter at this point?
Because, He identified Jesus as the Christ, and it is in the identification of Jesus as the Christ that we move from death to life:
Therefore many other signs Jesus also performed in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name. John 20:30–31 (NAS95)
Again, Paul helps us understand what is going on here—
For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise. Galatians 3:27–29 (NAS95)
In faith, we believe that Jesus is the Christ. At this point, are justified, just like Abraham was, thus becoming his descendants (cf. Galatians 3:6-9: Romans 4:1-3). In our faith, we have, in effect, clothed ourselves with Christ—that is, when God looks at us He now sees Christ, and His righteousness covering us. Or, to say it another way, we have been given a new identity.
So, when Peter expresses his faith that Jesus is the Christ, He is justified, just like Abraham was. Now, spiritually speaking, he has a new identity. To highlight this spiritual change, Jesus gives him a new identity—a new name, in the physical realm. Because of his recognition of the Rock (Jesus, the Christ) Simon becomes Rocky.
So, returning to this issue of the building of the church, we find that it is built on the Rock that is Jesus, the Christ. What are the implications of this?
Primarily this—If I believe that Jesus is the Christ, the One to Whom supreme authority has been given in heaven and on earth, there is only one reasonable response—complete and unconditional submission. Anything less is to exempt myself from the very authority that I claim to recognize in Him as the Christ.
We’ll unpack this next.