It seems strange that the Gospels only record two occasions during his time here on earth when Jesus referred to his church. And only Matthew mentions them both. Surely then, they must be packed with all the essential basics of church life?
In Matthew 18:15-20 our Lord gave extremely practical rules for dealing with brotherly disputes in a local church. If one member wrongs another their fellowship becomes disconnected. Jesus offers very simple instructions about how these members can re-connect and bring closure to the issue that estranged them from one another. By contrast, in his earlier statement he dealt with the local church’s global connections.
Matthew 16:13-20 On this occasion he said, ‘I will build my church’, not ‘my churches’. This statement refers to the church in every generation of its history from the day of Pentecost until Jesus returns. It also concerns the church in every nation in the world’s current geography.
How does a local community church benefit from this global aspect of church? It prevents us feeling sorry for ourselves if we are few. For instance, here is a statement I read in a theological magazine: ‘There is no such thing as private prayer.’ Can that be true I wondered? What about lonesome John on the Isle of Patmos? Then I read on: the writer added, ‘But, of course, personal prayer is possible.’ John saw an angel adding ‘much incense to … the prayers of all the saints on the golden altar before the throne, and the smoke of the incense, with the prayers of the saints, rose before God from the hand of the angel’ (Revelation 8:3-4), so his personal prayers were not private.
The local church is organically joined to the saints of all generations and of all nations, as part of the dynamic community of the Lamb – the church of Christ. We are not merely piffling pipsqueaks, a handful of pathetic has-beens and also-rans. In my younger days I devoured books on church history, such as ‘The Pilgrim Church’ by E H Broadbent that told the story of the small church communities that had withstood the massive ecclesiastic machine of organised ‘churchianity’; God’s thriving underground church. It is the reason that I still pray daily for our persecuted brothers and sisters throughout the world with the help of Barnabas Fund resources. Wherever the people of God suffer injustice, we also suffer – and triumph – with them; for it is not all bad news.
Caesarea Philippi was one of the sites where the Emperor was worshipped as well as the pagan god Pan. And when Peter declared that Jesus was ‘the Son of the living God’ Jesus acknowledged this as revelation. We still need that insight to be part of a living local church. And it is only possible to join his global church by the experience of new birth; it is in his resurrection life (Matthew 16:21-28) that his church prevails against ‘the gates of Hades’. This revelation and experience of his person and work forms the rock foundation of his community. He then gave Peter personal use of ‘the keys of the kingdom’. How and when did he use those keys? He opened the door for the gospel to the Jews (Acts 2), to the Samaritans (Acts 8) and to the Gentiles (Acts 10 – 11 in another Caesarea). In the remaining chapters of Acts mentions of Peter ‘peter out’ and Paul’s missions to Gentiles, through this now opened door, take prominence.