Building the Church

“And I also way to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it” (Matthew 16:18).

Matthew 16:13ff. has historically been one of the most oft-cited passages of Scripture. Throughout the Middle Ages, it was used to support the claims of the papacy against all challengers. The Reformers delved into this passage to refute their Papist opponents. This long and varied usage has made it difficult for contemporary readers see certain remarkable features of the text. Readers come to the text with historically conditioned questions, either to support or refute the Leonine interpretation. More recently, scholars have examined this passage for insight into the relationship between the Church and Kingdom.

My purpose in this brief essay is to attempt to examine the text on its own terms, with as few preconceived questions as possible, except to determine what precisely Jesus is saying. I shall focus on verse 18, quoted above.

A careful reading indicates first Jesus used a striking mixture of metaphors. On the one hand, he spoke of “building.” As the Greater Solomon, Jesus came to construct a new and more glorious temple. Yet, He did not say that He would build His “temple,” but His “Church.” Ekklesia (translation of the Hebrew qahal) refers throughout the LXX to the assembly of God’s holy ones for worship. It never refers to a building. Indeed, as far as I can determine, the Old Testament never employs the idea of “building” the “assembly.” Instead, ekklesia and qahal are used in connection with verbs like “gather,” “call,” and “assemble.”

(Two passages that use “assembly” in close proximity to “build” are 1 Kings 8:13-14, where Solomon speaks of building the temple, and blesses the assembly, and 1 Chronicles 28:2-3, where David tells the assembly that he intended to build a house for Lord, but was not permitted to do so. Neither of these, however, uses “assembly” as the object of the building.)

How, then, could Jesus speak of “building” a “church”? Should we conclude that Jesus had begun already to use ekklesia in a different sense from the Old Testament? This is a priori implausible, and is made impossible by the fact that none of the New Testament writers use ekklesia as a synonym for “temple.” Surely, if Jesus had used ekklesia in this sense, His apostles would have followed suit; but we find that the New Testament writers used ekklesia in more or less the same sense as the LXX did. Should we then conclude that in this statement Jesus used both temple and assembly imagery? It does seem to be the case, as so often in Scripture, that we have a mixed metaphors, in particular a mixture of architectural and political metaphors. Jesus says He is engaged in a building process, but what He builds is not a Temple, but an assembly.

The “building” metaphor makes the most sense in the context. Peter had just confessed that Jesus is the Christ, the anointed Son of David who would build the house of the Lord (cf. Ps. 2; 2 Sam 7:14). Jesus answered by assuring Peter that He was indeed the promised Son, and that He had come to build.

It is the use of ekklesia that is intriguing. Jesus seems deliberately to have been drawing attention to some connection between “temple” and “assembly” by His use of this mixed metaphor. The “assembly” is, in general, the gathering of God’s people for worship, and the “temple” is the dwelling place of God. Perhaps Jesus intended to imply that the assembly of the Lord for worship is in fact the true temple of God. By drawing together two OT types, Jesus was drawing attention to the fact that God dwells not in temples built by hands, but among His assembled people. God’s dwelling, Jesus implied, would no longer be localized in a brick-and-mortar temple, but would be identical with the worshiping assembly of God’s people (cf. Jn. 4:23).

The already complicated imagery is made more so by the fact that Jesus added a military metaphor. The “assembly” that Jesus promised to “build” is also in conflict with the “gates of Hades.” This is not an entirely inappropriate image; ekklesia and qahal are sometimes used in the Old Testament in reference to military assemblies. Again, it is the connection of “building” and “assembly” that makes this image complex, for while the assembly might be assembled for war, a building cannot go to war. The introduction of the military imagery suggests the possibility that Jesus meant to imply that He was not building a temple, but a fortress. This interpretation, however, breaks the links between Peter’s confession (of the Christ) and Jesus’s promise (that He would build the promised temple). The military imagery is most directly connected to ekklesia. It thus seems appropriate again to interpret Jesus’ statement as an overlapping of images used to indicate overlapping realities. Hence: The temple of God is the worshiping assembly of God is the army of the Lord (cf. 2 Chron. 20). By mixing metaphors, Jesus was able to summarize concisely various dimensions of the work of His people.

One final question must be dealt with. It is curious that Jesus spoke of His assembly-temple-army as being engaged in conflict with the “gates of Hades.” Two interpretations are suggested. In one, Jesus was picturing the Church as a fortress-temple, which is able to withstand the onslaught of the soldiers of Satan. This interpretation is problematic because we must imagine that Hades is equipped with advancing gates. The second interpretation is that Jesus was picturing His Church as an advancing army against which the gates of Hades cannot stand. This interpretation is problematic because it requires that the Church-Temple that Jesus will “build” upon a “rock” is mobile. Jesus’ metaphor would seem on the contrary to emphasize not the mobility but the stability of the Church. While the Church is here pictured as an army, she is not pictured as an advancing army, but rather as an assembled army.

Both of these interpretations fail, it seems to me, because both ignore the Old Testament imagery of gates. A gate is a place of judgment. Jesus was saying that the judgments of Hell will not be effective against the Church. The warfare of the Church with Satan is judicial warfare, a legal contest. Satan is, after all, the “accuser.” This is not only in keeping with the Old Testament imagery of gates, and with what we learn about Satan elsewhere (cf. Job 1-2; Zech. 3:1-5), but with the immediate context of Matthew 16:18. In the very next verse, we find that Jesus granted the keys of the kingdom to His apostles. The keys were the apostles’ weapons against the accusations, the legal warfare of the gates of Hell. And they are our weapons today.

Peter Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. This article was originally published on Biblical Horizons.

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