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The Mystery Of The Church

(Mystery, in the Scriptures, denotes that which is only known through revelation, to those taught by the Holy Spirit.)

"He saith unto them, But who say ye that lam? rind Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the "on of the living God. And Jesus answered and said unto him Blessed art thou Simon Bar-Jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven. And I also say unto thee that thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it " (Matthew 16. 15-18)

The words quoted above were spoken by our Lord at Caesarea Philippi at an important juncture in His life and ministry. The time, the place, and the content of His announcement are divinely chosen. The surrounding circumstances are recorded in each of the first three Gospels This underlines their importance. Significantly, Matthew gives the most detailed account of our Lord's words on this occasion. He also indicates a climax in our Lord's ministry marked by a new emphasis which He began to give to His sufferings, His death and His resurrection. These matters now became the main burden of His ministry to His apostles. From that time began Jesus to show unto His disciples how that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed and the third day be raised up (Matthew 16. 21). Although previous intimations had been given by Him of the great purpose for which He came into the world it is evident, from the reaction of His apostles on this occasion that they had not before heard Him speak so pointedly and so definitely of the suffering, death and resurrection which He must accomplish at Jerusalem.

This declaration of our Lord at Caesarea Philippi is of greater consequence than any made by men in the long history of mankind. Foremost on the page of history are the names of men who have attempted at various times to influence the course of events by expressing in arresting terms some great principle or policy which should stand as a landmark in human progress. Strenuous attempts arc being made along these lines today as men grapple with the fearful problems facing mankind in the twentieth century. But whatever may be the outcome of the prospective Summit Conferences to which millions are looking with alternating hopes and fears, nothing can be formulated which will compare in importance or consequences with the words spoken by our Lord Jesus Christ to his apostles in the obscurity of Caesarea Philippi nearly 2000 years ago. When the thoughts and ideas of men have perished, these words will abide, and the project to which they refer will give eternal witness to the wisdom and power of God. This views the subject we arc considering in its true perspective. We should not allow the ceaseless and subtle propaganda around us to cloud our minds to this great and grand purpose of God which this world ignores, and against which the Gates

of Hades are set in relentless but unavailing hostility. We are in possession of a divine secret divulged to us so that we may set our course by the compass of divine revelation. We should continually ponder its relevance to ourselves and to the objectives we pursue.

At the centre of our Lord's important announcement are the words, "I will build My Church." We now know that He is referring to a project which was the subject of divine counsel before the foundation of the world. It is clear from Ephesians 5.28-32 that this wonderful purpose of God, which our Lord now announced as imminent, was in the mind of God when He created Adam and Eve. Indeed, the very manner of Eve's creation prefigured the great design which had been kept secret through the ages but was now being unfolded by the Son of God Himself.

The expression of His intention to build His Church, though dimly apprehended by the apostles, no doubt made a profound impression upon them. A declaration such as this, so far-reaching in its implications, having been made by the Son of God, it is, perhaps, not surprising that they were perplexed when He began to refer so definitely to His rejection and death at Jerusalem. Yet " I will build," and, "The Son of Man must suffer," are inseparable. His shameful death at Golgotha, His triumphant resurrection, and His ascension to the Father, were essential parts of the great plan, and these must be completed before the building of the Church could commence. All this the apostles were to learn later, but it did not coincide with their ideas at that moment.

It is important to observe that this wonderful, divine objective, My Church," does not absorb or supersede the purposes of God in relation to the nation of Israel. The system of Biblical interpretation, which spiritualizes the divine promises of a glorious future for the nation of Israel and applies them to the Church, obscures the whole picture of the future purposes of God given to us in the Holy Scriptures. "My Church" and Israel are distinct entities. God has purposes in each of them which should not be confused. Following her rejection of the Messiah, God set aside the nation of Israel for the time being but will recommence His dealings with her in the future (Romans 11.25-29). In the present interval, "My Church" is the divine objective which must be realized before the prophecies relating to Israel's glorious future can be fulfilled. This is basic and fundamental. Our Lord's disclosure at Caesarea Philippi of His intention to build His Church, together with further revelations made to His holy apostles and prophets on the same subject, concern a matter which was not divulged to Old Testament writers. It is in this sense that it is a mystery-a divine secret kept in silence through the ages but now revealed (Romans 16.25, 26; Ephesians 3.8-6).

In His historic declaration our Lord not only expressed His intention to build His Church, He also specified the foundation on which it would be raised, and the material of which it would be composed. Peter's confession, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," called forth the striking observation, " Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-Jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven. And I also say unto thee, that thou art Peter (Greek, Peiros) and upon this Rock (Greek, Petra) I will build My Church." This is not the place to consider in detail the fearful errors which Rome has based on this passage. Our Lord did not say to Peter "on thee I will build My Church." It is highly significant that in this very context, Peter, although a chosen apostle, is seen to be a stumbling man like ourselves (verse 28). Peter had an important place in relation to the Church, and this is explicitly stated,

"I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven" (verse 19). He is not the Rock on which the Church is founded. To mix the metaphors-the Rock and the holder of the keys-and apply them both to the same person is unwarranted. There is not the slightest hint elsewhere in the New Testament that Peter is the Rock on which the Church is founded.

It has been thought by many that the confession of Peter, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God," states the bedrock fact on which the Church is constructed, and that this is what is meant by the words "this Rock." Others have thought that our Lord uses the term to describe Himself. Whichever view is taken, and it appears to the present writer that they are practically synonymous, what stands out clearly in this first reference to the Church in the New Testament, is the emphasis given to its stability and security. Between Christ and His Church there is an indestructible bond. The designation later used in Paul's epistles, " the Church which is His Body " (Ephesians 1.22,23), gives further evidence of the closeness and permanence of this wonderful union of Christ and the Church.

The material of which the Church is formed is described by our Lord in His words to Simon Peter. Notice the play on his two names: Simon Bar-Jonah, expressing earthly lineage, and Peter, the name given to him at his first meeting with the Lord (John 1.42). With divine foresight, in view of the use He was to make of it at Caesarea Philippi, our Lord gave to Simon the new name, Peter (Greek, Petros a stone). He is a specimen of the material used in the construction of the Church. To him had been given a divine revelation in relation to the Christ. Blessed, indeed, was he! Blessed, too, are all who Peter-like can say through divine enlightenment, " Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God." These are the material of which the Church is formed. They are born of God: "Whosoever believeth that Jesus is the Christ is begotten of God" (1 John 5.1). And each upon his believing is sealed with the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1.18) and "baptized in one Spirit into One Body" (1 Corinthians 12. 18). This last reference gives the means by which membership of the Church is effected. Baptism in the Holy Spirit first occurred at Pentecost (Acts 1.5). This identifies the great Pentecostal effusion of the Holy Spirit with the commencement of the building of the Church which our Lord envisaged in His announcement at Caesarea Philippi. Since Pentecost all those who believe the gospel receive the Holy Spirit and thereupon become members of the Church (1 Corinthians 12. 13).

We cannot deal with further aspects of our subject in this short paper. One paper in this series is devoted to the wonderful revelation that believing Jews and Gentiles are fellow-heirs and fellow-members of the Body (Ephesians 3.6). And there is a wealth of teaching in Paul's epistles, particularly in Ephesians and Colossians, which reveals the central place this glorious Church occupies in the purposes of God.

The subject we have been considering needs to be safeguarded by rightly dividing the Word of truth. Confusion of thought results through failure to distinguish between churches of God, which are local and conditional, and the Church which is Christ's Body. Frequent reference to this tendency has been made in these pages, but one has only to read current expository literature to see how necessary this caution is. The view, so often expressed, that the church (and churches) of God and the Body of Christ are identical but differently named when viewed from different angles, is not only untenable hut leads to confusion, and obscures a subject of the greatest importance. Churches of God occupy a leading place in the Faith which was once for all delivered to the saints, and no loyal-hearted believer can view with equanimity the present departure from the apostolic pattern in regard to principles of gathering for God's people as expressed in churches of God. But we are dealing here with My Church," which in origin, purpose and destiny, must be distinguished from them. Undoubtedly the New Testament envisages members of the Body of Christ finding their place, during their earthly pilgrimage, in churches of God, standing together in divine service and testimony. But failure in this, deplorable as it is, cannot invalidate the act of divine grace by which all believers become members of the Church which is His Body.

"My Church," which began to be built at Pentecost, will be complete at our Lord's return. Then will emerge in glorious manifestation the great masterpiece of divine wisdom, which has been a central purpose of God during the centuries since our Lord took His place at His Father's right hand. Against the dark background of human failure and folly, silently but ceaselessly, the great work proceeds, secure beyond the reach of satanic and human hostility, and under the gaze of principalities and powers in the heavenly places (Ephesians 3. 10). Christ loved the Church and gave Himself up for it (Ephesians 5.25). At long last, glorious and spotless, She, as His Bride, will be beside Him sharing His glory and displaying His grace-" the fulness of Him that filleth all in all " (Ephesians 1.28).

"What raised the wondrous thought,

Or who did it suggest,

That we, the Church, to glory brought,

Should with the Son be blest?

O God, the thought was Thine,

Thine only could it be;

Fruit of the wisdom, love divine,

Peculiar unto Thee.

For sure no other mind

For thoughts so bold, so free,

Greatness or strength could ever find

Thine only could it be."