Matthew 16:13-18

There were seven of them. The wonders of the ancient world.

  • The Hanging Gardens of Babylon – lush terraces of greenery and tree groves, artificially transplanted into the flat, arid regions of modern Iraq.
  • The Statue of Zeus at Olympia – sixty feet of gleaming ivory, towering above his worshipers on a jewel-studded throne.
  • The Temple of Artemis at Ephesus – for centuries a place of pilgrimage for the people of Asia Minor, its magnificence enclosing a palatial site the size of a football field.
  • The Mauseleum at Halicarnassus – the spectacular tomb of King Maussollos, topped by a stunning statue of the king and his wife in a horsedrawn chariot.
  • The Colossus of Rhodes – one hundred feet of hollow bronze honoring the sun god Helios, guarding the city’s harbor and visible for miles out at sea.
  • The Pharos of Alexandria – a four-hundred-foot white stone tower lighthouse on Egypt’s Mediterranean coast, a fire constantly ablaze from its uppermost story.
  • The Pyramids of Giza – a series of enormous limestone tombs rising from the sands of Egypt, the only one of these great landmarks that still remains.

Earthquake, fire, and the advancing armies of foreign invaders toppled all but one of these world-renowned structures, leaving behind little more than their likenesses as etchings on old coins. One of the ancient wonders even collapsed into shards of metal to be sold off the scrap heap. These grandiose works were legendary, but they were not lasting.

There are other wonders, too, that have been recognized as being civilization’s finest work, such as the Colosseum of Rome, the Parthenon of Greece, and Petra (the City of Rock) in Jordan. These wonders have been in many ways eclipsed by such modern wonders as Big Ben, the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the Suez Canal, and others. Time and tourism have also given “wonder” status to such natural works of art as the Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls.

I have been blessed with the opportunity to see each of these present-day wonders. The immense skill, artistry, and labor of those who created them are truly amazing. And of course, the beauty and grandeur of God’s natural wonders are stunning, breathtaking.

But stand any of these wonders next to the church of the living God – or stand all of them end-to-end – and they pale in comparison.

What’s so wonderful about the church?

You may think that’s crazy. Perhaps the church has become for you a boring matter of routine. The sermons, the classes, the same old thing. Oh, every once in awhile – at Easter, maybe, when there’s music and drama and pageantry – maybe then it has that “wonderful” look and feel about it. But the church on an every-day/every-week basis . . . a wonder?

Perhaps, in fact, it’s been your experience that the closer you got to the inner workings of the church, the more you came away not impressed and inspired but disappointed and disillusioned. The world’s wonders have precision and grace, but the church seems to be characterized more by disharmony and disagreement, by hypocrisy, petty wranglings, and hallway gossip. You like the church, you’re committed to the church, but being a part of the church sometimes takes a lot more effort than it seems it should.

I understand that.

But I want you to try pulling away for a moment, looking past the people and personalities, thinking bigger than what you see with your eyes or remember from your childhood, and begin seeing the church for what it really is – and whose it really is.

I want you to catch the wonder again. I want to exhort you to see the church of God in the same way the God of the church sees it.

Let us exalt the founder of the church

You’ve probably heard it said, “The church is not a building; the church is its people.” And that’s very true. But I believe the first place to look to see the wonder of the church is not toward its people (as sweet, kind, and thoughtful as they may be – or as harsh, stern, and bullheaded as they may be) but toward its Founder and Leader, its reason for being.

The church – your church – belongs to Jesus Christ. And it is from him that the church derives its wonder because

  • he is its strength, its source, and its Savior;
  • he is the life and truth that both supports and sustains it;
  • he has assumed the responsibility for carrying it safely into the future;
  • and he has secured its victory for all eternity.

You see, I could tell you in all honesty that the church is the largest institution that has ever existed on the face of the earth. Current research indicates that nearly 1.9 billion people in the world today profess faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. I could take a giant step further and tell you that by the end of the twenty-first century – at the present rate of growth – approximately five billion people will be members of the visible church on the earth. And these numbers don’t take into account the untold millions of others who have already died in Christ and are dwelling even now in his very presence. These are staggering numbers – surprising to some – and in one sense they go a long way toward impressing the unconvinced that the church is not on the way out but, rather, on the way up.

However, we who are members of the church don’t have to rely on our numbers to give us weight and significance. We don’t have to depend on acceptance and popularity in order to consider ourselves part of something valuable and important.

We must merely see Jesus. He is all the glory the church ever needs.

Look carefully into his eyes again and hear what he has to say about his church.

Christ and the church

Remember the time Jesus sat down with his disciples and asked them this question?

“Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”

So they said, “Some say John the Baptist, some Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:13-18)

This short scene from the life of Christ yields some profound insights into his view of the church-both the things that are of importance to him and the things that don’t interest him at all.

First, Christ is not concerned about public opinion. The initial question he put to his disciples was not intended as a way to gather poll results. For one thing, he was already fully aware of what people were saying about him. Even more than the words they were saying, he understood the heart and motive behind those who were slandering his existence and mocking his ministry. More than likely, Jesus was just wanting to see the look in his followers’ eyes as they reported what they were hearing – the look that probably betrayed some of their own feelings about this so-called Son of God who was sitting before them.

Were they not so sure themselves? Were they inwardly wondering whether there might be some truth in what the people on the street were saying? Perhaps he was merely a sideshow attraction, not the one who was “appointed heir of all things . . . the radiance of [God’s] glory, the exact expression of His nature . . . sustain[ing] all things by His powerful word” (Hebrews 1:2-3).

We don’t know all the reasons Jesus had for asking this question, but we know he wasn’t trying to win the respect of the press or hoping to draw a bigger crowd at his next public event. The opinions of others were immaterial to the one-goal focus that drove him to remain obedient to his Father – up to, through, and beyond the very end.

And he is no more concerned about public opinion today.

Count on the newspapers to pigeonhole the church into an out-of-date, old-school, uninspiring shell of religious expression that has no influence or relevance in a modern age.

Never be surprised to see the TV documentaries jump at the chance to deride, berate, and expose the church’s failings and weaknesses, painting us all with the same broad brush as those who indeed bring disgrace on the cause of Christ.

Don’t get discouraged when the bulk of the people on your street are either sleeping, eating breakfast, or mowing the grass when you drive by their houses on Sunday morning. Right now, they may see the church as a pointless interruption in an otherwise relaxing weekend. They may not understand what anybody gets out of it. We’ll continue to pray for them, stop by to visit them, and share the gospel of the kingdom with them every chance we get. But if some of them never have a brighter view of God’s people than they do today, it will not diminish the power of the church or slow its march toward a victorious eternity. The church’s authority does not rest on the whim of majority rule but on the authority of its Lord and Ruler.

Nevertheless, Christ is concerned with our personal conviction. The key question in this conversation between Jesus and his followers is the second one – not “Who do men say that I am?” but “Who do you say that I am?” He wasn’t really interested in the way they answered the question of his divinity according to their friends and neighbors; he wanted to hear them answer the question for themselves.

And his intention is just as true today. Who do you say Jesus is?

When he turns to ask you that question, is it relevant at that moment what your parents think or what your pastor thinks or what some professor of yours thinks about Jesus? No, the only thing that matters is what you think.

Who do you say Jesus is?

For while the Father has indeed ordained the Son to be “the head of the body, the church” (Colossians 1:18), the church is built one person at a time as individuals are drawn into it under the conviction of the Holy Spirit. The church’s victory is assured by the overcoming life of Christ, but its victory is revealed every time doubt is transformed into faith in the heart of a believer.

People’s opinions about Christ come and go. The questions may be slightly different across the centuries, but all the questions in the world can be summed up in the one personal question every man and woman must ultimately answer:

Who do you say Jesus is?

Christ wants private conviction to become public confession. It would be a misunderstanding of Jesus’ question to think that he is content for people to give a silent nod of assent to him without declaring openly their Christian faith and belief.

This is the point where many people stumble along the road to salvation. More indicatively, this is the point where many people minimize or completely do away with their need for the church. When someone says they can worship Christ in their own way or that their religion is a private matter between them and God, they are stopping short of Jesus’ clear command and selling short the wonder of his Body. Jesus said, “Everyone who will acknowledge Me before men, I will also acknowledge him before My Father in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father in heaven” (Matthew 10:32-33). The message is clear, and the consequences are profound.

This is why Jesus reacted so affirmingly to the response of Peter to his question. You know Simon Peter. Normally, the only time he opened his mouth was when he needed to change feet. He was always quick with an answer, even when the words made only a brief stopover at his brain for processing.

But this time he happened to get it right. Jesus had asked, “Who do you say that I am?” Peter’s answer was equally bold and determined: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” He confessed Jesus the same way we are to confess him – outwardly, publicly, verbally, and dogmatically.

The folly of private Christianity is that it is really a veiled attempt to keep a foot on both sides of the fence – to not commit one’s self entirely to the notion that Christ is Lord, to pick and choose those instances when religious faith is of most comfort and benefit.

If you know anything about the teachings of Christ, though, you know that fence-sitting is not an option in the kind of life he modeled and described. In the passage immediately following this one in Matthew 16, Jesus began revealing to his disciples the harsh realities that awaited him over the course of the next few months. Peter – this same Peter – “took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, ‘Far be it from You, Lord; this shall not happen to You?”‘ (Matthew 16:22).

Just moments earlier, Jesus had been delighted by Peter’s out-loud, in-public declaration of Christian faith. But now, notice Jesus’ staggering admonishment of Peter’s whispered, hushed, off-to-the-side appeal toward self-preservation: “Get behind Me, Satan!” Jesus said, “You are an offense to Me, for you are not mindful of the things of God, but the things of men” (Matthew 16:23).

Then turning to the rest of his followers, he shared with them these serious, familiar words of surrender and submission that cut to the heart of Christian discipleship: “If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (Matthew 16:24-26).

The church is Christ’s out-in-the-open declaration of who he is and what he is doing. We who are his followers must stand together in full view of the world, willing to suffer whatever price our association with him costs us, for “what will a man give in exchange for his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).

Finally, Christ guarantees the church’s perpetual victory. Jesus responded to Peter’s public confession of faith with a bold promise of his own: “I say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” Matthew 16:18).

We know that the Roman Catholic Church interprets this verse as being a decree from Christ that someone from Peter’s lineage will perpetually rule the church as its pope. If you’ll read this verse carefully, however, you’ll notice that Jesus clearly had a more substantial decree in mind.

The name “Peter” in Greek is petros, the masculine form of the word that means a “small stone” or a “tiny pebble.” Yet the word rock used in this verse comes from the feminine form – petra – which refers to an entire slab of rock or even a mountain.

Not far from where I live just east of Atlanta, Georgia, stands an enormous slab of solid rock called Stone Mountain. Its bare, gray face extends hundreds of feet above the ground and for two miles horizontally from beginning to end. It is the largest exposed mass of granite in North America.

Without a doubt it is what the Greek language would call a petra. Capital letters. Underlined twice. Gigantic rock.

But if you go to the base of that mountain, you can easily kick up all kinds of loose gravel that has found its way there by being dislodged from the much, much larger rock. Pick up one of these little stones, stare up at the mountain it came from, and you’ll have a good sense of why the rock you’re holding in your hand is not best described as a petra but as a petros – a tiny pebble.

Jesus said, “You are Peter – petros – [a little rock], but upon this petra – [this big rock, this brave confession of yours about who I am and what I came to do] – I will build my church.”

Any doubt about who this petra really is can be easily answered with another Scripture, this time from 1 Corinthians 10. There Paul is speaking to the New Testament church about the children of Israel during their exodus from Egypt and their years of wandering in the wilderness. He reminds the early believers that these forefathers of theirs “all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and that rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:3-4).

The only man who is ever to be exalted in the church is its true leader, its true rock. And that Rock is the Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only one able to crash the gates of hell, to conclude the reign of death, and to claim the final victory over the devil.

  • Jesus alone, then, is the Lord of the church, and we are to obey him completely.
  • He is the Leader of the church, and we are to follow him totally.
  • He is the Lover of the church, and we should adore him supremely.
  • He is the Life of the church, and we can know him personally.

The Founder of our church is Jesus Christ, and he is making our church a modern-day wonder.


Used by permission of Broadman & Holman Publishers, Nashville, Tennessee. From the book Crown Him King by James Merritt. Copyright 2003.

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