The Church of the Living God
January 24th, 1965 @ 8:15 AM
THE CHURCH OF THE LIVING GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-24-65 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Church of the Living God. Nor could there be a more important teaching, doctrinal message of the truth of the Scriptures, and especially as that truth pertains to us, than the message this morning.
For these months, and how long is in the providence and wisdom of God, for these months, the pastor is preaching on what God says, what the Bible teaches. So the message is what God says about His church. Now, in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of Matthew is one of the most famous and meaningful and significant passages in all of the Word of God, and one of the most familiar: Matthew chapter 16, beginning at verse 13:
When Jesus came into the coasts—
into the area—
of Caesarea Philippi, He asked His disciples, saying, Whom do men say that I the Son of Man am?
And they said, Some say that Thou art John the Baptist, raised from the dead: some, Elijah, come back to earth; and others, Jeremiah, the weeping prophet. Others say You are one or the other of of the other prophets.
Jesus saith unto them, But you, whom say you that I am?
And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.
And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon, Son of Jonah: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven.
He is the One that withdrew the veil that allowed you to see this great truth:
And I say unto thee, Thou art petros, and upon this petra I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
This is a homily. The message is a homily. We shall look at God’s Word and speak what God hath said. “When Jesus came into the area of Caesarea Philippi” [Matthew 16:13], now, it is very important where the Lord is standing because the situation in which He has found Himself with His disciples is the background of this all-important revelation that He will make. Caesarea Philippi, Kaisarios de Philippos, the Caesarea that belongs to Philip—up there at the top part of the country of Palestine was located Dan; from Dan down to Beersheba, Dan. Up there at Dan was one of the three great fountains that formed the Jordan River. And the largest of the fountains is this one, Dan. Those pagan Greeks worshiped Pan, the god, Pan, there at that fountain; so they called the city, Panius, and it was given to the whole district up there. The district up there was called Panius, from that city of Pan, where they worshiped the god Pan at that glorious fountain, one of the three headwaters of the Jordan River.
Now in 20 BC, Augustus Caesar gave that district to Herod the Great. And out of gratitude to Augustus, and because the whole world was vying in all of its parts in emperor worship to do homage and honor and reverence to Augustus Sebaste—that’s a Greek word for “god”—Augustus was presenting himself to the world by the very name, Augustus Sebaste, by the very name of god. So the rulers all over the world, the sycophants, were building temples in which Augustus is to be worshiped. So there at Pan, at ancient Dan, there Herod the Great built a gorgeous and impressive marble temple, in which temple Augustus Caesar is to be worshiped. For hundreds of years that was the greatest challenge to the Christian faith: emperor worship. All of those persecutions that you read in the Apocalypse and among the seven churches of Asia and for years that follow, all of that came from emperor worship.
Do you remember Polycarp? The pastor of the church at Smyrna was given the choice of saying, kurios kaisar, “Caesar is Lord,” or kurios Iēsous, “Jesus is Lord.” And Polycarp’s famous answer, “Eighty and six years have I served Him. Kurios Iēsous.” And they fed him to the lions. Now Jesus is standing there; He is standing there before that great temple, beautiful and impressive, in which Caesar worship is conducted. He is standing there when this passage is related in the Word of God [Matthew 16:13-18].
Now when Herod the Great died—a word about the name of the place: when Herod the Great died, he bequeathed to his son Philip Panius. And Augustus confirmed that inheritance. So out of gratitude to Augustus Caesar, Philip named the town up there, Caesarea, Kaisarios—for kaisar, Caesar. But the capital of Judea was named “Caesarea by the Sea.” So he put his name to it, to distinguish it from the Caesarea by the Sea. So up there is Kaisarios des Philippos, the Caesarea, the Caesar, “The town of Caesar that belongs to Philip.” Now that is where He is. And the town was built upon a great cliff, several hundred feet high, a tremendous rock strata.
Now let’s begin seeing where they stand and the background of what He says. While He is there—with that city built on that great strata and with all of the background of Caesar worship—while He is there, He says to His disciples, “Whom do men say that I the Son of Man am?” [Matthew 16:13].
And they said, “Well, some say you are John, raised from the dead. And some say you are Jeremiah, the weeping prophet.” Isn’t that remarkable? The impression Jesus made upon people: John, so rugged and strong, and Jeremiah, so melted in tears. “Some say you are Elijah, and others say other things” [Matthew 16:14].
“But whom say ye that I am?” [Matthew 16:15].
And Simon said, “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” [Matthew 16:16], which we call the great confession. “Thou art the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One, the Son of the living God.”
“And Jesus answered and said unto him, “Simon, son of Jonah, Simon Bar-jona: flesh and blood hath not revealed this unto thee” [Matthew 16:17]. You did not get it from what men think, or what men say, or what others surmise. “Flesh and blood hath not apokaluptō,” unveiled it. Apokalupsis; there’s that word of the Revelation again, “Flesh and blood has not unveiled it.” Apokaluptō, apokalupsis, “Flesh and blood did not do that; but God did that” [Matthew 16:17].
No man can call Jesus Lord, no man can say kurios Iēsous but by the Spirit of God [1 Corinthians 12:3]. You can philosophize forever; you will never enter into the spiritual depths and meanings of the Lord Christ by human wisdom and human philosophy. It comes as an apokalupsis from God. It is the Spirit of God that reveals the person, and character, and meaning of the saviorhood of Jesus to us [1 Corinthians 2:10]. Flesh and blood didn’t reveal it, not what some man said, or what others theorize or postulate. It is from God. “My Father did it” [Matthew 16:17].
“Now, I am going,” said the Lord Jesus, “I am going to reveal,” apokalupsis, “I am going to reveal another truth unto you, Simon.” You see also verse 17, “My Father has revealed to you, Simon, this great truth, Christ is Lord. Christ is God. Christ is the anointed of heaven [Matthew 16:17]. And, I say also unto thee,” Simon, I am going reveal to you another great spiritual, eternal truth. “Thou art petros” [Matthew 16:18]. And the Greek word for petros is an individual stone: petros, a stone.
If we were there in a quarry, or in Palestine, that’s the most abounding rocky country in all this earth. An angel flew over to distribute all the rocks in all of the earth, and a hole in his bag developed over Palestine, and they all fell out on Palestine. Oh! You can just see the Lord as He speaks this, “Thou art petros” an individual rock, a rock. A rock, “Thou art petros” [Matthew 16:18].
“And upon this petra” and I just see the Lord with a gesture of His hand. “And upon this petra ….” Petra is the foundation, the stratum. I can just see the Lord as He stands there, and that city of Caesarea Philippi, and that temple to Augustus Caesar. I can just see the Lord as He refers to that enormous ledge, cliff of rock. “Simon, thou art a rock,” petros, “and upon this petra,” the great foundation of that confession, “Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God” [Matthew 16:16].
“For other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” [1 Corinthians 3:11]. That is what Paul said in the third chapter of 1 Corinthians. “Thou art petros,” a stone, “and upon this great petra,” this great foundation of the deity of the Son of God, the confession Simon Peter had just made, “and upon this great foundation ledge I will build My church” [Matthew 16:18]. As Simon Peter said in the second chapter of his first letter, “We are all living stones.” We are petroi, “We are all living stones” [1 Peter 2:5]. Here’s a stone, there’s a stone, there’s a stone. We are all living stones, built up into the temple of the Lord. Simon Peter is one, John is one, Matthew is one. You are one, you are one, I am one. “And we are all being built up,” said Simon Peter, “into the temple of God” [1 Peter 2:5]. But the great petra, that vast ledge, the immoveable and eternal foundation upon which the church of God is built, is the deity of Jesus Christ, the great confession: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” [Matthew 16:16].
Now let’s talk about that church, translated “church” [Matthew 16:18]. Isn’t that a strange thing? Oh! We need hours to go into all these things. “Church” is an altogether different kind of an idea than the word that Jesus used. “Church” comes from kuriakos. After Constantine, why, they applied the word to the house; the Lord’s house, the kuriakos, the Lord’s house. And after the emperor became a Christian, they began to build glorious houses, churches.
So kuriakos became kirkas, kirk, “church,” you know, as it went through the language. The idea is nothing like that. What the Lord said is, “Upon this great foundation” [Matthew 16:18], upon this great stratum, the deity of Christ; “Thou are the Christ,” the confession of Simon Peter [Matthew 16:16]. The church is not built upon a man. It’s built upon the deity of Christ. It’s built upon the Lord Himself. “No other foundation can any man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ” [1 Corinthians 3:11].
Now, the Lord says, “On this great foundation of the deity of the Son of God, I will build My ekklēsia” [Matthew 16:18]. I noticed that Dr. Baxter used the Latin of that: ecclesia, ecclesia. Well, ekklēsia was a common, ordinary Greek word. They just used it every day: ek, “out of,” kaleō, “called,” the called-out ones.
In the nineteenth chapter of the Book of Acts it is used three different times there to refer to the town meeting in the city of Ephesus. A town crier went down, just like those old English customs. A town crier went through the city; and he called saying at such-and-such time, such-and-such place, there would be a called meeting of the assembly in Ephesus. And they called that the called-out ones,” the ekklēsia, and they did business. Like a democratic township up there in New England, they did business for the city. Three times that word is used in the nineteenth chapter of Acts, referring to the assembly, the called out ones in the city of Ephesus [Acts 19:32, 39, 41].
In the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts, Stephen uses it to refer to the “church” of Israel, the “called out,” redeemed of God [Acts 7:38]—out of the land of bondage, an ekklēsia. It was just an ordinary Greek word. Now the Lord uses it in the same and identical sense; an ekklēsia is His “called-out ones,” an ekklēsia, the called-out ones [Matthew 16:18].
In this New Testament, ninety-five times out of the one hundred fifteen times it is used in the New Testament—ninety-five of those one hundred fifteen times it refers to the local congregation; and that is the only one we have anything to do with. In the twelfth chapter of the Book of Hebrews, the author says:
We are come unto Mount Zion, and to the holy city, the New Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels,
And to the general assembly and church of the first-born, whose names are written in heaven.
Now that’s the church up there in glory, in heaven; and you won’t see that until you get up there to the marriage supper of the Lamb [Revelation 19:7-9]. That is one way it’s used.
Now it is used also in a generic sense: like you say, “the home,” or “the state,” or “the school,” or “the man,” or “the woman,” or “the law.” You take all of the specific instances of that word and you make it generic. You apply it to the idea of the whole thing, which is the way the word is used here.
But when we come in actual contact with it, it is without exception always a local congregation. There is no such a thing as “the Church of Asia.” There are churches of Asia, the seven churches of Asia, no “Church of Asia” [Revelation 2:1-3:22]. There is no such thing as the “Church of Judea,” but the churches of Judea. There is no such thing as the “Church of Macedonia.” There are the churches of Macedonia; and, without exception, that is true in the Word of God.
And when you read in the paper endlessly—and all Christendom is like this—“the Church,” there is no such thing, no such thing—more than you use it as an idea—but when you speak of, “the Church,” and put a denominational name in front of it, there is no such thing as that in the Bible. The churches of Asia, the churches of Judea, the churches of Macedonia, the churches of Galatia; and that is the only church we have anything to do with, is a local congregation.
And it is a whole lot more than what some people think. A church is not just an amorphous body that might assemble upon any occasion or anywhere; but a church is a body of baptized believers voluntarily associating together for the administration of the ordinances and for the promulgation of the gospel of the Son of God in all of its riches, and all of its purity, and all of its meaning. Now that is the word, ekklēsia, the “called-out of the Lord” [1 Colossians 1:18]. It didn’t refer to the house, it referred to the people—you.
Now briefly; what He says about it; “And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” [Matthew 16:18]. Now the Lord has said there a very simple, but ah! so meaningful a thing. What are “the gates of hell,” “the gates of hell?” Well, “hell” to us, of course, is the damnation of Gehenna, hell. He didn’t say that, nor did He even refer to that. He was not even thinking about that.
The Greek word for the land of the departed, into which all who die go—the Greek word was Hades, ha-eidous, an alpha privative; and they aspirated it, they put an “h” in front of it. Alpha privative—and eidon, “to see,” “not seeing.” The land where you can’t see, now that is all Hades means—the land in which all who die go, where you can’t see where they go. That’s Hades. And they divided it into two parts: Elysium—the land, the fields, the Elysian fields, so many times you see that in Greek literature—the Elysian fields, the happiness, the Paradise, and Tartarus, the torment; the same and identical word was used in Hebrew, sheol, sheol. Sheol was divided into Abraham’s bosom—paradise, heaven [Luke 16:22]—and Gehenna [Luke 16:23], “where the worm dieth not, and fire is never quenched” [Mark 9:44, 46, 48].
Now the word that Jesus uses here is the word for death [Matthew 16:18]. That’s all that it means. And “gates,” gates don’t ever attack. The idea is preposterous and far-fetched, and is not in this at all. As though something were going to attack; it has no reference to that at all. Gates enclose, that is what they are for; gates shut to enclose. So the Lord says that “the gates of death,” and you will find this expression, “the gates of Hades” or “the gates of sheol,” you will find it in Talmudic literature and all the literature of that day. He merely referred to death. The gates of Hades, the encompassing power of death, shall not katischuō, translated here, “prevail.” Kata is “down,” and ischuō is “to have strength.” So the Lord says the power of death cannot hold it down, cannot hold it down.
Now may I take the rest of the time and follow that through? The power of death, which destroys everything else in this world, and everything else in this life, “The power of death shall not destroy, shall not hold down, My church” [Matthew 16:18]. Now He means this two ways: first, it will not destroy the churches of Jesus Christ in this world; and it will not be able to hold it down in corruption in the world that is to come. First, let’s speak of it in this world. The power of death will not be able, will not katischuō, Christ’s church in this world.
Tertullian, the great lawyer in about 200 AD, standing before the Roman officials declared, “We are but of yesterday, compared to other religions—we are but of yesterday. Yet, we have filled your towns, and your cities, and your camps, and your palaces, and your Roman Forum, and even your Roman Senate.” The church lived. The church of the Lord Jesus lived in days past. The church of Jesus Christ lives today, this hour. And the church of Jesus Christ will live until God takes it, raptures it to Himself [1 Thessalonians 4:14-17]. For in the next verse, He speaks of the keys of the kingdom [Matthew 16:19]. “Until the kingdom come,” until the churches of Christ be raptured to Himself, be taken out of this world [1 Thessalonians 4:14-17], the churches of the Lord will be here in this world. There will be one, there will be one, yonder will be one. The waste of death and all of the fortunes of life will not destroy Christ’s church; won’t do it.
Oh! I wish we could follow that through, but I want to close with the most wonderful of all of the promises in this. “Nor will death, the gates of death,” that hold everything, that destroy everything, corrupt and waste everything we know in this life, nor will the gates of death be able to hold down Christ’s people, the churches, the church of the Lord [Matthew 16:18].
Death dissolves every other relationship in life. Death destroys all business relationships. Death destroys all marital relationships. Death destroys all social relationships. Death destroys all political relationships. Death destroys every relationship you make in this life. When you die, it’s done; it’s over, and it is forever over. You can’t vote tombstones, except when the Democrats do it in a presidential election. But dead people—dead people don’t vote, and dead people don’t marry. And dead people don’t belong to social orders or follow certain traditions and customs. Death destroys every relationship that we make in life.
But there is one relationship that the Lord Jesus says will rise from the dead, and that is the relationship you establish with Christ in His church. God in His power will break asunder, will open the gates of death, and Christ’s people will arise out of the dust of the ground, out of the heart of the earth, and reign, and live, and praise, and glorify God forever and ever and ever [Revelation 5:13]. That’s what the Lord is saying in this meaningful and all significant passage [Matthew 16:18].
If you are going to live, you must establish that relationship of life in the circle of the people of God. All beyond it, you leave behind. The treasures here; wasn’t that a magnificent thing? The treasures here, all of them—every relationship you establish—the treasures here you leave behind. The treasures there, we possess forever [Matthew 6:19-20].
Now I’m going to try something out on you. I want to see how—I want to see how this does. When I was a teenager, I was a pastor. I started when I was seventeen years old; and there is a time in everybody’s life when they write poetry, everybody’s life. You’re just going through that time now, you don’t escape it. There is a time when you write poetry. So when I was a teenager I was just filled with thoughts of God, and the church, and the people of Jesus, and my sermons. I preached three times every weekend: Saturday night, Sunday morning, Sunday night.
And I was just always thinking of the Lord and the Lord’s work. And in those days, I wrote a poem that I called “The Church of the Living God.” And this it:
Empire and kingdom, archduke and prince,
Are buried beneath the sod.
All that remains of earth’s vast domains
Is the church of the living God.
History has finished its slow-moving course.
Fallen are scepter and rod.
All that abides of times and of tides
Is the church of the living God.
Alas! For a world steeped in sin and in shame,
Sinking down in despair with a sob,
A world facing fate of repentance too late
To enter the church of God.
Gone are the lusts of the flesh and the heart,
And the passions that sway the mob.
Naught in their place is there ought but to face
The judgments of Almighty God.
Sorrow of sorrows, oh, the loss of all losses,
The soul of its Savior to rob,
Turning away from Him who could stay
The wrath of Almighty God.
Soon life will be over. Soon day will be ended.
Soon flowers and trees cease to nod.
In an earth filled with death, where the spirit of breath
Has been taken back unto God.
O stranger in sin, O child without hope,
O wearied of earth’s ways to plod,
Forsake evil night, come into Christ’s light,
And rest in the fold of God.
[“The Church of the Living God,” W.A. Criswell]
An appeal that you give your heart to Jesus, that you join your soul with us in the fellowship that death cannot destroy, one that shall abide forever. And while we sing this hymn of appeal, somebody you, this day to look in faith to Jesus, come and stand by me [Ephesians 2:8]. A family you, put your life in the fellowship of this precious congregation; come, come, make it now, and welcome. In the name of our living Lord, who shall raise us from the dead [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17], come and welcome, while we stand and while we sing.
CHURCH OF THE LIVING GOD
A. The effect Jesus had
upon people who saw Him
one can know Christ as Lord except by a revelation from heaven(1 Corinthians 1:3, John 6:44, Matthew 16:17)
C. Two revelations in
1. Character and
meaning of our Savior
2. He will build
His ekklesia(Matthew 16:18)
a. Word “church” never
used in the Bible
II. Meaningful background
A. Emperor worship
B. Topography of the
– “a great stratum, foundation”(1 Corinthians
3:11, Matthew 16:16, 1 Peter 2:5)
III. The church – the ekklesia
A. Greek word for “called
out”(Acts 7:38, 19:32, 39, 41)
B. Three ways it refers
to the household of faith
1. The saved,
God’s bride in glory(Hebrews 12:22-23)
2. A generic
sense, an idea(Matthew 16:18)
3. The local
IV. Gates of Hades shall not prevail against
A. Not “hell”, but
“Hades” – refers to death
B. Death shall not be
able to hold it down
1. It will be
here in perpetuity, until God takes them out