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What is the Church? (Matthew 16:13-18)

Preached by Pastor Phil Layton at Gold Country Baptist Church on December 30, 2007


Last week I asked the very basic question “what is salvation?” What are we saved from? Saved from what?

Today, we’re going to look at another foundational question – what is the church?  A related question is who or what makes up the church?  That should be pretty basic, but based on how many different answers are being given to these questions in our day, even within evangelicalism, I think this study is very timely.

There’s a lot of things we could study together, at the start of this next year there’s nothing more important this New Year than renewing our understanding of Jesus Christ and His Church – what His church is, what it’s not, what it is supposed to be. So we’re starting a new series this morning that we’ll be continuing for many weeks focusing on Christ’s church.

What is the Church?

The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines “church” as:

1      a building used for public Christian worship.

2      (Church) a particular Christian organization with its own distinctive doctrines.

3      institutionalized religion as a political or social force: the separation of church and state.

That’s how man defines the church, but it’s totally different than how Christ defines His church, or how God’s Word speaks of God’s church. This building you are in is not the church.  The N.T. never uses the word “church” for a building.  A Christian organization is not a church.  The church in biblical times was not “institutionalized religion as a political force”

Some of you in this room are in the church, and some of you are not. I don’t mean the auditorium.  I don’t mean involved or not involved. I don’t mean membership at GCBC – I’m sure we have people who are members here and not really in God’s church, and I know many of you are in the true church of God spiritually although you’re not members here on paper yet physically. 

We need a biblical definition of the true church and who’s in it.

Where do we go to define the church? Why not the first place the word “church” appears in the Bible? TURN TO MATTHEW 16.

Matthew is the only gospel that uses this word church, ekklesia, which literally means “called out.” It was used of an assembly, or a convocation or congregation, but Jesus speaks of “My church” and He gives it new and fuller meaning. This ekklesia would be His and it would be based on His ministry and His teaching and it’s something He would build in the future.

Matthew 16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”
Matthew 16:14
And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”
Matthew 16:15
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Matthew 16:16
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Matthew 16:17
And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.
Matthew 16:18
“I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.

In the first 12 verses of this chapter we encounter the Pharisees and the Sadducees, who Jesus rebukes as undiscerning (v. 3) and part of an evil and adulterous generation (v. 4). He then privately teaches his disciples to beware the leaven of the Pharisees (legalism, externalism, works-based, hypocritical, self-righteous religion, etc.).

It is on this backdrop that we see the highlight between false religion and the true Christian faith as shown by Peter.Peter’s confession of faith in Christ in v. 16 is the bottom line defining characteristic of the church. The true church is made up of those who have the right understanding of who Jesus is.

This is so basic, or at least should be, that the only people who are truly members of Christ’s church are those who have made the right confession of Christ, who truly believe who He claimed to be. But there’s a lot of people who profess or claim a part of Christ’s church who give little evidence of understanding this basic truth. 

I read an article this week discussing the results of a Newsweek survey:

seventy percent of evangelical Christians believe that a person can be saved and go to heaven apart from any confession of Christ.  Extensively these are people who call themselves Christians and who identify with the church … they do not affirm necessarily the absolute foundation of God's people being this confession. According to a survey some years ago, one of George Barna’s surveys, fifty percent of evangelical Christians do not believe in absolute truth.  That is, they have been affected by the society in which they live, the culture and the thinking of our time, so as to say there's no such thing as absolute truth, absolute moral truth.  There's your truth and my truth and everybody else's truth and everybody's entitled to their truth therefore the Bible might be true for me but not necessary for you.  That's a few years ago.  In a more recent survey, very recently, students were surveyed in evangelical schools, evangelically identified students said, ninety-one percent of them, "There's no such thing as absolute truth."

… So you're going to find all kinds of places that call themselves churches and accommodate these kinds of people [who are not true Christians] … In a true church there is the worship of the Lord Jesus Christ as the only Savior and the Lord of the church.  And there is willing and eager obedience to everything revealed on the pages of holy Scripture and an understanding that it is true and that it is authoritative.  Christ is enthroned and Scripture is exalted.  Christ is preached and the Word of God is exposited, or explained.  That's foundational to a church and these are the words of our Lord.  

… [John MacArthur writes] I can go in a church and I can tell you in a few minutes whether it’s a real church or whether it’s just a church in name by their attitude toward Christ and their attitude toward the Word of God.’[1]

It all has to do with Christ and what says.


1. The Church is Built on Christ, v. 13-16

2. The Church is Built from Christ, v. 17-18

3. The Church is Built by Christ, v. 18



1. The Church is Built on Christ, v. 13-16

Matthew 16:13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?”

It all starts with a biblical understanding of who Jesus is. Without the fullness and glory and sufficiency of Jesus embraced as Lord and Savior, you do not have a true church because you do not have true Christians. It doesn’t matter what the sign outside the building says, it doesn’t matter even if we say the right things about Jesus but do not really believe those truths and bow before them.

There are many things people say about Jesus. There are many different views of Jesus, as we will see his disciples answer in the next verse, and there are certainly more views in our day.

Verse 13 mentions Caesarea Philippi, which is an area about 25 miles North of Galilee, at the base of Mount Hermon. Philippi was renamed Caesarea because Caesar Augustus wanted people to remember him and worship him as a deity so there was this massive temple built there to this god Caesar. It had become a center of Greek and Roman culture and idolatry, a place filled with idols and false religions of the pagans as well as the corrupted religion of Judaism, and it is right here that Jesus chooses to clarify once and for all who the real people of God are, and who the real Lord of all is.  

Jesus asks “who do people say the Son of Man is?”

This title refers to himself, as is clear by parallel in v. 15, the disciples knew this was how Jesus referred to Himself as he had several times already in Matthew’s gospel.  “Son of Man” has been called the most frequent title Jesus used for Himself. Some would say the title emphasizes his humanity whereas “son of God” emphasizes deity, although Daniel 7:13-14 uses the title as Messianic as the King and Lord before the Ancient of Days.

Jesus starts by asking what the people say about him as a lead-in to the real and all-important question which is “who do you say that I am?” What were some of the 1st century ideas and opinions of him?

Matthew 16:14 And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”
I believe John the Baptist had already been executed at this point, and Herod and company were saying that maybe this Jesus was John the Baptist come back to life, probably because of the way He preached against sin and against the Pharisees.

Why would others say Elijah?

The Jews were looking for Elijah to come again. Even today during some Jewish Passover celebrations there’s an empty chair reserved at the table for Elijah, in the hope of his one day coming to announce the Messiah.

When Jesus was dying on the cross in Matthew 27, the people thought he was calling for Elijah, and they said let’s wait to see if Elijah will save him.

When John the Baptist began preaching in John 1, the Jews are asking him if he is Elijah, or is he the prophet. John identifies himself as the voice crying in the wilderness (the fulfillment of the Isaiah 40 prophecy).

The Jewish scholars taught that Elijah would come before Messiah:

Matthew 17:10 And His disciples asked Him, “Why then do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?”

Matthew 17:11 And He answered and said, “Elijah is coming and will restore all things;

[Jesus either quotes the teaching of the rabbis or paraphrases an O.T. prophecy – the parallel of Mark 9:12 says “Elijah does first come and restores all things”]
Matthew 17:12 but I say to you that Elijah already came, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they wished. So also the Son of Man is going to suffer at their hands.”
Matthew 17:13 Then the disciples understood that He had spoken to them about John the Baptist.
(Notice this comes right after Elijah’s appearance at the Transfiguration in the same chapter)

Notice also the last line of O.T.:

Malachi 4:5 “Behold, I am going to send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and terrible day of the Lord.
Malachi 4:6 “He will restore the hearts of the fathers to their children and the hearts of the children to their fathers, so that I will not come and smite the land with a curse.”

Matthew 11:13 “For all the prophets and the Law prophesied until John.
Matthew 11:14 “And if you are willing to accept it, John himself is Elijah who was to come.

John the Baptist fulfilled the prophecy, but he was not Elijah reincarnated or resurrected.

This is what the angel told John the Baptist’s father before he was conceived:

Luke 1:13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John.
Luke 1:14 “You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth.
Luke 1:15 “For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb.
Luke 1:16 “And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God.
Luke 1:17 “It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers back to the children, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

Why did some think Jesus was Jeremiah?

According to Jewish apocrypha (2 Maccabees 2:1-12), uninspired Hebrew literature written before N.T. times, the prophet Jeremiah hid the ark of the covenant in a cave, and the writing says “As for that place, it shall be unknown until the time that God gather his people again together, and receive them unto mercy.”

So those were some ideas floating around. The disciples didn’t mention all the things that were being said about Jesus. The self-righteous critics had several less-flattering descriptions of Jesus: Samaritan, devil, blasphemer, glutton and drunkard, companion of publicans and sinners.


Who do people say Jesus is today?

-          Dan Brown, author of The Davinci Code, says Jesus was just a man who never claimed to be God, and who married Mary Magdalene and had children

-          To Catholic theologians, he is seen as a perpetual ongoing sacrifice whose body and blood is transubstantiated in the elements in the mass, and Jesus shares mediator roles with Mary, who is also called co-Redemptrix by some

-          To the Jesus Seminar scholars, Jesus never really died on the cross

-          To the liberals he was a good moral teacher

-          To the Muslims, He was a great prophet in the same way Mohammed was the great and final prophet

-          To the Mormons, he was the spiritual brother of Lucifer, and he became a God and we can become gods as well

-          To the Jehovah’s Witnesses, like these 2 ladies who came to our door last weekend, Jesus was godlike but not Almighty God, he’s a created being, a great angel, he was not Jehovah, He was not physically resurrected from the dead.

All of these blasphemies, all of the incorrect and insufficient answers given in Jesus lifetime, are the distinguishing mark between what is a church and what is not, and between who is a member of Christ’s church and who is not. It doesn’t matter what the sign says outside your building, that’s not a church if the true Christ is not explained and exalted and embraced as Lord and Savior.

So Jesus continues …

Matthew 16:15 He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

He is speaking now to His followers, His disciples.  The pronouns and word order are plural and emphatic:

“but YOU, who do YOU say that I am”?

This is the most important question of all. It’s final exam time, Jesus has been with His disciples perhaps 2 year or more and has been teaching them and it’s now time. This is the final exam and there’s just one question:

Who do you believe Jesus to be?

It’s one thing to know about Jesus, it’s another thing to know Jesus in a deep and true way (like the lady in F.O.F. class with Jaime, or the old preacher who could barely speak of the name Jesus without emotion and such obvious love and relationship with His Lord)

Simon Peter certainly was one of emotion and enthusiasm, and at this moment was on of his finest by God’s grace as he responds.


Matthew 16:16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Emphatic in Greek, definite article 4x, lit. “You are the Christ, the Son of the God, the Living One.” It’s a similar force to when Jesus says “I am the way, the truth, and the life, no one gets to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)

CHRIST – not the last name of Jesus, this was a title. We speak of Jesus as being Lord and Savior, and this title Kristos in Greek includes the idea of King, Redeemer, literally Annointed One or  Messiah, the Promised One from Genesis to Malachi, the ultimate Prophet, Priest, and King. 

SON OF THE LIVING GOD – clearly speaks of His deity. To be the son of someone in Jewish thinking was to be of the same nature, and to claim to be the Son or to speak of God as My Father as Jesus did was to make Himself equal with God (John 5:17-18).

Jesus says in v. 18 that this is what His church will be built upon.   A true church, a true Christian embraces the truth about Jesus.

As my former pastor has said:

‘That is our great confession. We say with Peter “[Jesus is] the Christ the Son of the Living God.” We say with Thomas, “My Lord and My God.” And again we say with Peter, “To whom shall we go? You and You alone have the words of eternal life and we know that you are the Holy One of God.” We gather to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. We’re here as worshippers …

The church is not a group of people who gather together to hear a motivational speech. The church is not a group of people who are seeking help from their addictions. The church is not a collection of folks who want to feel spiritual. It is not an assembly of those who want to somehow mindlessly go through religious ritual thinking somehow this does them good. It is an assembly of people who from the heart have made a great confession and that great confession is that there is a living God who has manifested Himself in His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ who is Himself the holy one of God and the only one through whom we can have eternal life … The church is a collection of redeemed people, redeemed through faith in the true Christ. It is not a collection of people who feel sentimental about Jesus, a Jesus unqualified and undefined by doctrine. It is a collection of people who make a common confession that Jesus is God, is Lord, Savior and Redeemer.’[2]

2. The Church is Built from Christ, v. 17-18

Just in case it’s not clear to you, the church is not a building, it’s a body of believers who know Jesus personally as their Lord, their Christ, their God their Master, their Messiah, their all in all.

The church is not an organization – in biblical terminology it’s more of an organism, living spiritual branches united to the vine, which is Christ. All who are in Christ by repentant faith, who have been transformed by Christ, who are living for Christ – they are in the true church, regardless of what denomination or type of church they attend. And if you have not embraced and confessed Jesus as Christ and Lord and God of your life, if He is not the Master you love and are following and living for, if you have not been transformed by His grace, regenerated to a whole new person where old things have passed away and new things have come – then 2 Cor. 5:17 says plainly you are not in Christ and therefore you are not in His church or His body or kingdom no matter what church you attend or how many years you attended or what you’ve done in the past.

The church is built on Christ, and it is built from Christ, it’s the body of Christ, and those in it are blessed by Christ:


Matthew 16:17 And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.

The word “blessed” (makarios) is the word Jesus used in Matthew 5 in the Beatitudes to speak of believers “… for theirs is the kingdom of heaven … they will see God … will inherit the earth”

This same blessedness, this same divine state of happiness and joy from God to His children is pronounced by Christ on Peter for this confession. This same blessed state can be found by any who truly believe in Christ as Peter did. It was not merely the words he said, it was the heart behind them that the Lord sees and looks for.

This was not a mere intellectual decision, in fact, no human being left to his fallen sinful self simply chooses to be in this church. This is not some club we decide to join – Christ decides and defines who will be in His church. Jesus makes clear in v. 17 that to truly believe in Christ is not something that originates in flesh and blood – Peter could not take credit for his faith or the truth he confesses here, it was from God the Father in heaven. It’s not of earthly origin, not of flesh and blood, no human being on his own does this.

John 1:12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name,
John 1:13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

John 6:44 “No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.
John 6:65 And He was saying, “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.”

If Jesus is your Lord this morning, praise God, because there’s no natural explanation, it must be a supernatural explanation by God the Father to your soul. And by God’s grace, the disciples He calls will be enabled to walk by faith, not by sight, they will commit to Christ no matter what the rest of the world thinks or does with Him This is the essence of true faith here expressed by Peter and exemplified by Peter, especially when you consider the context.

J. C. Ryle has written well:

The glory of Peter's confession lies in this, that he made it when few were with Christ and many against Him. He made it when the rulers of his own nation, the Scribes, and Priests, and Pharisees, were all opposed to his Master. He made it when our Lord was in the "form of a servant," without wealth, without royal dignity, without any visible marks of a King. To make such a confession at such a time, required great faith … [it] "was an epitome of all Christianity, and a compendium of true doctrine about religion." Therefore it was that our Lord said, "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah."

We shall do well to copy that hearty zeal and affection which Peter here displayed. We are perhaps too much disposed to underrate this holy man, because of his occasional instability, and his thrice-repeated denial of his Lord. This is a great mistake. With all his faults, Peter was a true-hearted, fervent, single-minded servant of Christ. With all his imperfections, he has given us a pattern that many Christians would do wisely to follow. Zeal like his may have its ebbs and flows, and sometimes lack steadiness of purpose. Zeal like his may be ill-directed, and sometimes make sad mistakes. But zeal like his is not to be despised. It awakens the sleeping. It stirs the sluggish. It provokes others to exertion. Anything is better than sluggishness, lukewarmness, and torpor, in the Church of Christ. Happy would it have been for Christendom had there been more Christians like Peter and Martin Luther, and fewer like Erasmus.[3]

Our Lord Himself would later tell the lukewarm church in Revelation 3:16:

“So then, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth.” (NKJV)

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

When I meet with other pastors at a conference or for fellowship, people will ask questions like “so how is your church going”?

The truth is it’s not my church. It’s Christ’s church. He owns it. I just work here, and I hope and pray I will always be about my Father’s business, not my own business. But this was not Pastor Dale’s church, and it will never be my church. I am a part of Christ’s church.

Jesus said “I will build MY church” – emphatic word order in the original language. It is built from Christ, He is the owner. We are stewards, but we’re all expendable.

The true church does not grow by human might or by power but by God. It is from and through the Lord alone, not the cultural gurus or gimmicks or growth strategies. Jesus doesn’t need our marketing techniques to grow His church, He doesn’t need us to re-invent some so-called emerging church, He doesn’t need us to change the message to build His church, He doesn’t need us to water down His truth to increase His church, He doesn’t need us to follow the fads or the music and entertainment of the world to build a church.

We don’t have the right to change the church because it’s not ours to begin with. Jesus calls it MY church here, not ours. It is owned by the Sovereign Lord of the Universe who knows a lot more about how the church should grow than all the modern experts and can do it pretty good without our improvements, thank you very much!

The modern church does need spiritual growth and health and strength and maturity, but the solution is not to throw out the original plan and rely on human masterminds to reinvent the wheel, we need to get back to the Master Plan itself in God’s Word!

Christ owns the church, He’s in charge of it, and if the American church fails and goes completely apostate Christ will still build His church even if it means He’ll do it in China or Korea. What Jesus promises is not that GCBC will be built, but that His church will be built. We only experience Christ’s blessing if we do it His way.

Nothing can thwart Christ's ultimate promise to build His true church. Time or tribulation will never alter Christ’s promise here, although individual churches may fail and forfeit divine blessing, Christ’s spiritual universal church will always march on.

J. C.  Ryle again says, "Great is the power which Christ displays in building His church!  He carries on His work in spite of opposition from the world, the flesh and the devil.  In storm, in tempest, through troublous times, silently, quietly, without noise, without stir, without excitement, the building progresses. . . .  We ought to feel deeply thankful that the building of the true church is laid on the shoulders of One that is mighty.  If the work depended on man, it would soon stand still.  But, blessed be God, the work is in the hands of a Builder who never fails to accomplish His designs!  Christ is the almighty Builder.  He will carry on His work, though nations and visible churches may not know their duty.  Christ will never fail.  That which He has undertaken He will certainly accomplish."[4]

KJV has nice ring of v. 18 “gates of hell shall not prevail.” The word in Greek here is Hades, the equivalent of Sheol in the O.T., both of which refer to death, not exclusively the lake of fire, but death in general. So a translation could be “the gates of death will not overcome the church” – i.e., the church will never die.

Satan’s weapon of death has lost its sting for the true church and is swallowed up in victory. Even if he could kill us, the church grows on the backs of martyrs. Blood-stained soil is fertile ground for the gospel that’s unstoppable.

Nothing can prevail or overpower against Christ’s ultimate building of His church. It will never be vanquished or conquered.

“Not prevail” means:

-          “not be victorious” (NKJV footnote)

-          “shall not overcome it” (NIV)

-          Nothing will be “strong enough [to] defeat[5]

-          It will not “win the victory” (BAGD, 424) over the church

-          It will not be “strong enough” or “superior to the church … The realm of the dead cannot overcome the Church of God, since it is the Church of the stronger Man” (TDNT, 3:397).

Not only is Christ the owner of the church, the church is built from Christ, He is the source, the originator, the mastermind – He’s the builder, the architect, the foreman, the One who designs and constructs it.


3. The Church is Built by Christ, v. 18


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


If you were to ask me if I have a desire to build this church, I would say no. I don’t want to be in competition with the Lord, because He said He is the one who will build the church.

Jesus the Son of David knew well what Solomon the original Son of David had written in Psalm 127 – “Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it”

It’s certainly possible to build a church where the Lord is not building. That’s a scary thought to me, but I’m sure it’s taking place all over America and this world. Men are building their churches, but if the Lord isn’t doing it, they labor in vain, according to God’s Word.

We want to make sure we are not laboring in vain, or wasting our time. I want to be a part of the church Jesus Christ is building, and let Him do it His way as we seek to follow His Word rather than our world.

BUILD - in 1st century language meant to construct, build, build up, build from the foundation, to found, establish

The word in the gospels is almost always used of physical buildings or the building process (Matt 21:33, 7:24, 26, 23:29) or of builders in relation to the foundation stone (21:42). Jesus used it figuratively referring to His own body (26:61, Mark 14:58), and the word is used literally of a house (Luke 6:48-49), a synagogue (Luke 7:5), a temple (John 2:20) – each of these metaphors symbolize the church, which replaces the temple and synagogue as the house of God, the body of Christ, and in the N.C., true members of the church are themselves the temple of the H.S. now.

The church is not a building, it is a body.

It’s not a business, it’s the bride of Christ.

It’s not a corporation, it’s a congregation of Christ-followers.

It’s not a financial institution, it’s a family, it’s a flock.

It’s not led by CEOs, it’s led by shepherds.

It’s not built by corporate executives, it’s built by Christ alone.

Who is in charge of the church? Who’s the head of the church? Is it the pastor, is it the executive board, is it the deacons, or the elders, is it the denomination?

In v. 18, Jesus says “You are Peter [meaning rock] and on this rock I will build my church”

Did Jesus put Peter in charge of the church? Was it to be built on him? Was he to be the first Pope?

Was it the authority structure of the church? Who is to lead the church? What does God want the church to be? What is the purpose of the church? Are we doing things God’s way?

Those are some of the questions that by His grace we hope to pursue in the many weeks ahead.

But in closing – who do you say that Jesus is?


There is no more important question than will ever be asked from this pulpit. Do you know Him? Do you love Him? Is He the Lord and Master and King of your life? If have never bowed your life and will and heart to worship Him for all He is, today is the day.


Those with a true understanding of and faith in Christ are a part of the true church.

1. The Church is Built on Christ

2. The Church is Built from Christ

3. The Church is Built by Christ




[1] As cited by

[2] John MacArthur, “Seven Foundations of a True Church, Part 1” (tape 90-294)

[3] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts, 1:196.

[4] Ryle, Holiness [Hertfordshire, England:  Evangelical Press, 1989], p.  214.

[5] Louw-Nida’s Lexicon, 2:139.

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