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“I will build my church.”
Matthew 16:18

The 2010 film Unstoppable tells the fast-paced story of an unmanned, half-mile-long freight train carrying a cargo of toxic chemicals barrelling toward a city. A veteran engineer and a young conductor race against the clock to bring the train under control before it derails on a curve and causes a catastrophe.

Eventually [spoiler alert!], their efforts to halt the train are successful. There are many natural processes, however, that can’t be stopped by human hands. We can’t prevent winter from coming, a common cold from running its course, or age from deteriorating our bodies.

Is there anything stoppable in the kingdom of God? Can the mission of God be thwarted? Can the bride of Christ be brought to a standstill?

Flourishing vs floundering

Whenever I visit God’s people in the developing world, I’m impressed by their seemingly boundless optimism in the face of what I would deem as insurmountable circumstances. Historically, we know the church flourishes amid persecution, poverty, and political hostility. Why? And why is the church in the West struggling to penetrate society, unable to reach the lost?

It’s a question of identity. In Matthew 16:16, we read Peter’s famous confession, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Our answer to the question of Jesus’ identity determines whether or not we will let the Holy Spirit grow us into the person he created us to be, or whether we will choose to go it alone.

Jesus responds to Peter’s surrender and confession with a greater revelation. Once Peter confesses who Jesus is, Jesus takes this childlike faith and builds on it: “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18).

This play on the meaning of Peter’s name – “rock” – designated him as the foundation of the new people of God. By giving him a new name, Jesus asserted his own right of lordship over Peter. Jesus was also telling the disciples that Peter would be a “first among equals,” a representative leader in the history of his church.

The inception of the church

Jesus said, “I will build my church.” The church would be built by Jesus himself, not by Peter. For Jesus to refer to the church as “his” was a surprising assertion. While the term ekklesia (church) simply means “called out ones” and was used by many groups in the first century, it’s the Old Testament word for the people of God. Jesus would unite believing Jews and Gentiles into a new temple, a new body, namely the body of Christ. Jesus claimed to be the builder and head of this people of God.

Jesus’ plan for the church would be unstoppable. Jews would have understood the “gates of Hades” as a poetic expression for death. Jesus’ words declared the permanence of this new community – nothing, not even death, could overcome it. By his own death and resurrection, Jesus Christ conquered the grave so death wouldn’t be able to hold any of his people. Christ “stormed the gates” and delivered the captives!

If we believe Jesus is the builder of his church, this will have a profound impact on how we view the church and approach mission. With Jesus in charge, we’re challenged to surrender to his plans and instructions. With Jesus as the builder, the church will rise up and the divine building process will be unstoppable.

The cause of Christ will always prevail, no matter what society looks like, how hostile a government is, or how politically incorrect the church appears. The church cannot look to society for validation.

Just like Peter confessed Christ regardless of what people thought, we too need to confess Christ to live with the same unstoppable power that raised Christ from the dead!

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