“And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” – Matthew 16:18
When reading this passage, most people focus on figuring out who or what the “rock” is upon which Jesus builds his church. The options are: Peter, Peter’s confession (Matt. 16:16), Jesus, or the apostles.
This is important, but there is so much more happening in this verse. Keep in mind that these are the first words out of Jesus’ mouth in response to Peter’s powerful declaration that “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
Beginning with “and I tell you” gives a hint that what Jesus is about to say is very important: he is explaining the significance of him being the Christ. Jesus announces that, as the Christ, his intention and task is to build his church. And Jesus makes it personal with the first person pronouns: “I will build my church.”
This very personal pronouncement also reveals that there will be cosmic conflict involved —“the gates of hell shall not prevail against” the church Jesus is building.
“The gates of hell” is a poetic expression for death and especially martyrdom (Job 38:17, Psalm 9:13). The “gates” are the aggressor and are offset against the gates of the daughter of Zion (Psalm 9:14, Psalm 87:2). It contrasts the conflict between the kingdom of God, represented by Zion, and its opposite, the kingdom of darkness.
The gates of a city in the Old Testament were not just the entrance point—they were a place where the strategy of the city itself was determined (see Ruth 4:1; 2 Sam. 15:2; 2 Sam. 18:4, 24, 33; and Psalm 127:5). The gates of hell convey the idea of the organized authority of the kingdom of darkness in an organized strategy again Jesus, his gospel, his kingdom, and his church. The demonic forces engaged in conflict with Jesus before he built his church, and they will continue to attack his church.
“In addition to seeing Jesus as prophet, priest, and king, we must also see his central role as the great church builder.”
In this cosmic conflict there is not a specific geographical location, as we see in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians that the church’s primary position is “in the heavenly places” (Eph. 1:3, 20, 2:6). Paul tells us the conflict takes place in the heavenly realm (Eph. 3:20, 6:12).
This theme of cosmic conflict in Matthew 16:18 sets the existence of the church within the context of the ultimate conflict in Scripture, running from Genesis 3:15 to Revelation 20. The conflict in Genesis 3:15 is a divinely inaugurated hostility, which is a promise of conflict and redemption, but also victory. From the beginning to the end of the Bible, the work of God in the building of the church is set in a conflict that will be won by God in the end (Rev. 20).
The Great Church Builder
God has always built a place for his own dwelling: Moses built the tabernacle, Solomon built the temple, and Jesus is Immanuel (“God with us”) but doesn’t stop there as he builds his church.
All of this reminds us of an aspect of Christology that we forget too much. In addition to seeing Jesus as prophet, priest, and king, we must also see his central role as the great church builder.
The church is his church and he has committed to build it, despite all the strategies of the enemy. Jesus is the great church builder, and he will not fail.
– Justin Holcomb resurgence.com