Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Founding of the Church

Life of Christ 82

Maplewood Bible Baptist Church, Chicago, Illinois
         We all like stories. As God's people, we naturally like the stories of Jesus' life the most. But His life was more than stories. He is 'the Word' (John 1.1), and more than stories flow from the Word made flesh. Doctrine flows from His life as well.
          Doctrine is not popular in our day. Some well-meaning but short sighted Christians have coined the phrase, 'Doctrine divides but love unites.' In this they are accurate, and sadly so. They downplay doctrine at the cost of producing an anemic Christianity, one more enamored with unity than it is with truth. It is certainly possible to examine the life of Christ and only focus on the stories that bring us feelings of spiritual blessing and encouragement, but it is an unbalanced focus on Christ that does so. Scriptural integrity and contextual hermeneutics drive me in another direction today. Brace yourselves. Here comes some wonderful doctrine.
          I mentioned in Life of Christ 81, Whom Say Ye That I Am? that this week that Jesus and the Apostles would spend in the mountainous region around Caesarea Philippi would include three earth shaking events. The first was Peter's great confession of faith. The second is the founding of the Church.
          This event is of tremendous importance. The Church is the pillar and ground of the truth (I Timothy 3.15). The Church is the body of Christ on Earth (Colossians 1.18). The Church is the bride of Christ (Ephesians 5.32). The Church is one of only three institutions founded by God, and the only one founded by Jesus Christ. The Church is God's divinely ordained method of leading us in the way of holiness and edification (Ephesians 4.11-13). The Church is God's divinely ordained institution for getting out the saving truth of the Gospel (Matthew 28.19-20). The Church is the human center of the mature Christian's life. I've often said in preaching that you cannot be right with God and wrong with church. Jesus shed His blood for two things: to atone for my sin and to purchase my church (Acts 20.28). Everything Jesus came to be and to preach is held by the Church, taught by the Church, propagated by the Church, and kept alive by the Church.
          I freely admit that the vast majority of Christians believe the Church started in Acts 2 when the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost, Peter preached, and 3000 people were saved and baptized. But I also freely admit I'm an independent Baptist and we don't subscribe to what is, at its core, Roman Catholic ecclesiology. Roman Catholic theology insists the Church started in Acts 2, and thus places Peter as the founder of the Church, and as its first pope – which means the Church is universal and invisible, rather than local, visible, and independent; which means that the Church has a human headquarters; which means that said headquarters is in Rome; which means that the Roman Catholic Church becomes the orthodox and traditional expression of New Testament Christianity.
Saint Peter as Pope, Peter Paul Rubens, 1610
          I am not a Catholic. I am an independent Baptist. I do not hold that Peter was the first pope, that the pope is the vicar of Christ on earth, and that the Roman Catholic Church is the New Testament church. I do hold that Peter was a sinner, a married sinner coincidentally; that he was not the first pope but merely perhaps the pastor of the church at Rome for a time; that the present pope, Francis II, is not the vicar of Christ but, in the immortal words of Martin Luther, is the vicar of hell; and that the Roman Catholic Church is not the expression of New Testament Christianity but rather the great whore of Revelation which yokes up with the beast and the false prophet shortly before being destroyed in the Tribulation period. And I share the traditional, though out of step, Baptist position that the Church began, not in Acts 2 with Peter's preaching at Pentecost, but rather during the lifetime of Jesus Christ Himself.
          Now, besides offending billions of Muslims and Catholics in two succeeding posts, what is my point? Simply this: that Peter didn't start the Church; Jesus did.
          What both Catholicism and most of Protestant Christianity misses is the context of the first mention of the church in the Bible. 'And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church' (Matthew 16.18). To assert that there is here some play on words between Peter and rock, and to then point to Acts 2 as the occasion in which Peter became the rock on which the Church is built is to completely ignore when Jesus said it. Just prior to Matthew 16.18 is Peter's great confession of faith in Jesus. 'But whom say ye that I am? And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God' (Matthew 16.15-16). The rock upon which Jesus built His church was not Peter, but rather Peter's confession of faith. The fact that Peter happened to preach the message at Pentecost has nothing to do with it.
          The truth is that the word church is first found in Matthew 16, not in Acts 2. The truth is that Acts 2 tells us specifically that at Pentecost three thousand believers were saved and baptized, and 'added' to the church (Acts 2.41, 47). In order to be added to something that something had to be in existence prior to that addition. The truth is that two chapters later we find Jesus giving instructions to His Apostles about how to deal with problems amongst the brethren, and He tells them to 'tell it unto the church' (Matthew 18.17). You can't take present problems 14 months forward in time to some future church that is not yet in existence.
          No, beloved, Peter didn't found the Church. Jesus did, in the beautiful mountainous region around Caesarea Philippi in the summer before His death.

          Doctrine. It's a beautiful thing, isn't it?

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