The Church of the Living God
January 24th, 1965 @ 10:50 AM
THE CHURCH OF THE LIVING GOD
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-24-65 10:50 a.m.
This is the service of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and it is a privilege to share God’s message with you who listen on television and on radio. This is the pastor bringing the sermon entitled The Church of the Living God. After the many, many years preaching through the Bible, these present months and years are devoted to seeing what God says; the truth summed up, the great doctrinal revelations of the Lord God. And the series of sermons in which now we are engaged concern the church of our Lord.
One of the most famous and one of the most significantly meaningful of all the passages in the Bible is embedded in the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew. And if you would like to turn to it, you do so now. The sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, and we shall begin reading at verse 13; Matthew 16:13. The sermon this morning is a homily, taking the verses one by one and seeing what God says to our souls.
“When Jesus came into the area,” you have it translated here, “the coasts” [Matthew 16:13]:
When Jesus came 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 say that Thou art Elijah—
the Old Testament closed with the promise of his coming—[Malachi 4:5-6]
Others say You are Jeremiah—
the weeping prophet.
May I parenthesize here? Isn’t it an unusual and strange thing, the effect that Jesus had upon people who saw Him? Some people looked at Him and turned aside and said, “You know, He is like John the Baptist: rugged, strong, fearless, adamant!” [Matthew 16:14]. Others turned and said, “You know, He is like Jeremiah, the weeping prophet” [Matthew 16:14]. Isn’t that an astonishing thing, how many of the fullness of the characteristics of humanity were in our Savior? So like all of us in our humanity, so unlike all of us in His deity. Well anyway, that is the impression that He made upon flesh and blood. Then the Lord said, “But you,” and the emphasis is that:
But you, whom say you that I am?
And Simon Peter answered for the group and said, Thou are the Christ—
the Anointed, the Messiah—
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—
What these people surmise about Me, and philosophize about Me, and postulate about Me—
flesh and blood hath not apokaluptō, apokalupsis…
There is our revelation. Just at the end time, you shall have an apokalupsis, an apocalypse, an unveiling of the Lord Christ. At the consummation of the age, you shall see Him in all of His might, and glory, and dominion, and power [Mark 13:26]. That is the Revelation, the last book in the Bible: the unveiling of our Lord, the Greek—the apokaluptō, the apokalupsis of our Lord [Revelation 1:1].
Here is one now: “flesh and blood”; not human wisdom, not human speculation, nor philosophy, nor theory; no man can know Christ as Lord except there be an apokalupsis vouched to him from heaven [Matthew 16:17]. You do not know Christ by worldly wisdom. “I’m going to study and learn. I’m going to know God.” You don’t know God as you would know science, or as you know chemistry, even as you know history. You know God by a revelation—an apokaluptō, an apokalupsis from heaven [Matthew 16:17].
Paul said it like this: “No man can call Jesus Lord, except by the Spirit of God” [1 Corinthians 12:3]. The Lord said it like this: “No man can come unto Me, except the Father draw him” [John 6:44]. And that is what the Lord is saying here. “Flesh and blood,” not what men think or what men write or what men surmise, “flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father” [Matthew 16:17]. The apocalypse came from heaven! Now the Lord says, “I am going to reveal another apocalypse, and I say also,” now here is another one; the Lord is going to say, “I say also…” The Lord, the God of heaven, revealed the first apocalypse, the character and the meaning of our Savior [Matthew 16:17]. “Now, I am going to tell you another one. Thou are petros, and upon this petra I will build My ekklēsia” [Matthew 16:18]. Isn’t that a shame, what has happened to language and to the history of the church? I cannot speak without using the language, so I have to say “church.” But there is no such thing as a church in the Bible! Church. Where the word “church” came from was after Constantine. When he married the people of God to the Roman Empire, the church to the state, they changed the name of what we are known as in the Bible, an ekklēsia, “called out,” the called-out people of the Lord. It referred to the people of the Lord, referred to God’s saints, God’s converted, anointed, chosen elect: ek, “out of,” kaleo, “called.” An ekklēsia, the called-out people of God.
They changed that word from ekklēsia, “the called-out,” to kyriakos, because in the lavishness of the wealth of the emperor and the Roman Empire, the word came to refer to the beautiful house; kuriakos, “the Lord’s house.” And of course, in the progress of language, kuriakos, kirk, “church,” but there is no such thing as that in the Bible. But I cannot talk in the language without using the word. But He never said “church,” or kirk, or kuriakos; nor did He refer to the lavishness of the embellishment of any house that we build for God with human hands.
He said, “Thou art petros … and upon this petra,” and we will discuss that in a moment, “I will build My ekklēsia” My household of the appointed, elect, saved saints whose names are written in heaven [Luke 10:20]; I will build My ekklēsia, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” [Matthew 16:18]. Now that is the passage.
Now let us begin. And I feel so good this morning. Lee Roy turned the service over to me at twenty minutes after eleven. Ah! I feel so unhurried; and yet we must keep on because there is so much to be said. No small part—and I hope you will stay awake. If you will, you will have a good idea of what the Lord was saying here, which is different from nine hundred and ninety-nine percent out of a thousand of what all Christendom thinks about it. No small part of what the Lord said here is set against the background of where He was. First, against the background of emperor worship; second, against the background of a great cliff, a great rock ledge upon which Caesarea Philippi was built.
All right, let us take the first one, against the background of who is Lord. Kurios Kaisar, or Kurios Iēsous? “Caesar is Lord,” or “Jesus is Lord”? Against that background: first, of emperor worship. In the first three centuries of the story of the people of Christ, their assailant and their tremendous challenger was emperor worship; the power of the state to coerce, and persecute, and make to conform.
Now the Lord, in this retreat from Galilee, the Lord was up there at the top of Palestine in a place called Dan—“from Dan,” up there at the top, “to Beersheba,” down at the bottom [Judges 20:1]. He was up there at Dan. It was a place where a beautiful and copious fountain poured out of the base of Mt. Hermon, and that with two other fountains formed the headwaters of the Jordan River. Now He is up there. The Greeks, when they possessed that country, worshipped Pan there; the god Pan. So they called the city there, used to be called Dan, they called it Panius. And the whole district there was named Panius, from the god Pan that was worshipped there at old Dan.
Now in 20 BC Augustus Caesar gave Panius, that district there, to Herod the Great. And out of gratitude to Augustus for the gift, and because the whole Roman empire in all of its parts was vying with one another to do reverence and obeisance to Augustus, to Caesar Sebaste Augustus—that was a word used for god. And Caesar, Octavius Caesar, was presenting himself as the god of the Roman Empire. So he chose the word sebaste in Greek, Augustus in Latin; this is “Augustus Caesar.” This is “god” Caesar. And in keeping with that emulation from one part of the empire to the other to do obeisance and reverence to the god Sebaste Augustus Caesar, Herod the Great built there a beautiful, glorious, marble temple in which Augustus Caesar is worshipped.
That was the great challenge to the first churches in the Roman empire, and for the first three centuries. Don’t you remember the story of Polycarp, the pastor of the church at Smyrna, when they hale him before the Roman officials and seek to make him to deny the Lord? And they put before him a choice: “Polycarp, is it Kurios Kaisar, or is it Kurios Iēsous? Is it [Lord Caesar], or Lord Jesus?” Remember Polycarp’s famous answer? “Eighty and six years have I served Him. It is Kurios Iēsous!” And they fed Polycarp to the lions. Now, that is what I’m talking about. There in that place Jesus is standing in the presence of a beautiful, gorgeous, white marble temple dedicated to emperor worship: Kurios Kaisar, “Caesar is Lord.” All right, that is one of the backgrounds.
Now the other of those backgrounds is the topography of the land there. Panius, old Dan, was changed by Philip, the son of Herod the Great. When Herod the Great died in 4 BC, he gave Panius to his son, Philip, and Augustus Caesar confirmed that inheritance. So out of gratitude to Augustus, why, Philip made the capital of Panius not Panius, but Caesarea, Kaisaris. But there was already a Kaisaris in Palestine, the capital of Judea; the Roman province of Judea was Kaisaris, Caesarea, down there by the sea. So Philip named his city, up there, Kaisaris des Philippus, “Caesarea that belongs to Philip,” “Caesarea of Philip.” Now that city was built upon a tremendous, tremendous rock cliff, a great ledge, a vast stratum of rock. And it was against that background that the Lord said to Simon, son of Jonah, “Simon, son of Jonah, I say to you,” the second revelation, “that thou art petros,” petros, a rock, a stone [Matthew 16:18].
And my brother, if you have ever been in Palestine, there were plenty of stones around for the Lord to refer to. The old legend is that Gabriel had in a sack all of the rocks for all of the created universe of God, and he was going to distribute them all over the world. But the sack got a hole in it over Palestine and all the rocks fell out in Palestine—rocks everywhere! That is what the Lord says, petros.
“Simon, thou art a petros” [Matthew 16:18]. Here is a rock, there is a rock. Here is a rock, there is a rock. All of us are individual stones, petros, rocks [1 Peter 2:5]. He thinks I am going to do at this service what I did at the 8:15 service. At the 8:15 service I said we are all rocks, each one of us is a petros [1 Peter 2:5]. Peter is a petros. Here is a petros; you are a petros; rocks, all of us are individual rocks.
Then He said, “And upon this petra.” A petra is a great stratum. It is a great foundation. It is a vast ledge. And I can just see our Lord as He said those words. With a gesture of His hand I can see our Lord refer to that vast rock cliff upon which Caesarea Philippi was built and upon which that temple stood. “And upon this foundation,” upon this great stratum; that is, Paul said, “Other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ” [1 Corinthians 3:11]. Upon this great foundation: “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God” [Matthew 16:16]; that is the foundation of the household of faith: not a man, no matter who that man is, but God—but the deity of Christ. Upon that great confession, that apokalupsis, that revelation from God that Jesus is Christ [Matthew 16:16], “Upon that great foundation of Jesus Christ, I will build My ekklēsia [Matthew 16:18],” these stones. There is one. There is one. Here is one.
That is what Peter said. In the second chapter of 1 Peter, he said, “All of us are living stones” [1 Peter 2:5]. You have it translated, “lively stones,” living stones, built up into the temple of God. That is what the Lord said He was going to do. He is going to build His ekklēsia with living stones, living stones [Matthew 16:18; 1 Peter 2:5]. And all of the household of faith, the erected, reared up, raised up, on the great foundation ledge that He is the Christ, the Deity, the Son, the incarnate God; that is what He meant when He said, “Thou art petros, and upon this petra I will raise up My ekklēsia” [Matthew 16:18].
Well, let us look at that ekklēsia. That ekklēsia was just a common word used among Greek people: like baptizō, just a common word meaning “dip” or “immerse,” household word. Ekklēsia was a household word; just common Greek language. I can show you how they used that in the New Testament. In the nineteenth of the Book of Acts, why, three times you have the word ekklēsia used there in the ordinary, common language of that Greek-speaking day [Acts 19:32, 39, 41]. When they had, you know, the riot in Ephesus [Acts 19:24-29], why, they called the town council together [Acts 19:32, 39, 41]. They called the town council together, and the town council they called an ekklēsia [Acts 19:32, 39, 41]. And the reason they called it that was a crier would go through the streets of the city, and he would “call the meeting,” call the meeting [Acts 19:32, 39, 41]. That is the way they did in those true democracies and the townships in New England. A town crier would assemble the people together for business of the city.
Missionary Ryan, after the service this morning, he said, “You know, we do that in the San Blas Islands down there. There is a crier that goes through the San Blas Islands, and he calls out the people for the assembly.” An ekklēsia, “the called out,” just an ordinary Greek word.
Now another time you find that ordinary Greek word, and on this word there is a denomination that builds a whole system of theology. In the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts, Stephen refers to the called-out redeemed of Israel as “the ekklēsia in the wilderness” [Acts 7:38]. Has no connotation here, what Jesus is saying about it at all. It is just an ordinary Greek word. The people that were called out of bondage, he calls them “the called-out,” and they were wandering through the wilderness [Acts 7:38].
Now the Lord takes that ordinary, common, household Greek word, ekklēsia, “the called-out,” and He says upon this foundation, of which Simon Peter is one of the stones, and all of us who are saved are other of those stones [1 Peter 2:5], upon that great foundation of the deity of Christ, “I will raise up My ekklēsia,” My called-out saints [1 Corinthians 1:2], redeemed in the blood of the Crucified One [1 Peter 1:18-19], “My church” [Matthew 16:18]. And I hate to use the word church. It just violates everything in the Bible to say church. There is no such thing as “church” in the Bible; that refers to those gorgeous, sumptuous houses. It is an ekklēsia [Matthew 16:18]. The church is the people of God washed [1 John 1:7; Revelation 1:5], bought, redeemed in the blood of the Lamb [1 Peter 1:18-19]. “I will raise up My ekklēsia” [Matthew 16:18].
Now there are one hundred fifteen times in the Bible that that word ekklēsia is used. Ninety-five of the one hundred fifteen times it refers to a local congregation. There are three ways that the word is used in the New Testament, besides the one that I said was just an ordinary Greek word. There are three ways that it refers to the household of faith.
One: it refers to the saved, God’s bride, up there in glory. For example, in the twelfth chapter of the Book of Hebrews:
For we are come unto Mount Zion, and unto the heavenly city, New Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels, and to the general assembly, and church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven.
Isn’t that a glorious thing? That is where we are going. We are going that-a-way. What a marvelous prospect! “And to the general assembly, and church of the firstborn, whose names are written in glory” [Hebrews 12:23]. We all will be there. Now that is one way the church, the word ekklēsia, is used.
Another way that it is used is the way here. It refers to a generic sense, the idea of church. Like, when a man says, “The state, and the school, and the home,” why, he is using the word to refer to all instances of church, and state, and home; a generic sense, an idea.
Then the third way is the way that it means for us. The only church that we have anything to do with is a local congregation; and that is the way it is used in the New Testament, referring to us. There is no such a thing as, “the Church of Asia,” as “the Church of Macedonia,” as “the Church of Judea,” as “the Church of Galatia.” That is not in the Bible; nor is the idea of that in the Bible.
What you find in the Bible without exception is this: the churches of Judea, the churches of Asia, the churches of Macedonia, the churches of Galatia. And the only one we have anything to do with—”we” is the local congregation to which you can belong; a local ekklēsia, a local ekklēsia. There is no exception to that in the Word of God. So in belonging to an ekklēsia, in belonging to a local congregation, of course I also belong to the church triumphant, invisible, that shall gather someday as the bride of Christ in the heaven of heavens that is yet to come [John 14:3; 1 Thessalonians 4:16-17].
But down here where I am, this is the church, this is the ekklēsia [1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:22-23]. And it is not an amorphous sort of a conglomerate of just whoever might be together; there is no idea like that in the Bible, I don’t think so at all. But a church, a church, an ekklēsia, the one that we happen to be with, is a very distinct and united unit to itself. It is a group of baptized, converted believers [1 Corinthians 12:13], who have voluntarily associated themselves together for the administration of the ordinances, and for the proclamation and the preaching and the promulgation of the truth of God revealed in His Holy Word. And without that you don’t have a church; no, sir! You may have a gathering of the saints and you may have a convocation of dear, good people, but you don’t have a church until you have that, according to the Book.
Now what does God say about His ekklēsia? “I will build My church,” if you call it in Latin, ecclesia, if you call in Greek, you call it ekklesia. “I will build My church” [Matthew 16:18]. Now He says about it, “And the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” [Matthew 16:18]. So, there is in that one of the sublimest apocalypses, one of the sublimest revelations to be found in the whole Word of God. Now look at it, this is it: “The gates of hell,” translated “hell” [Matthew 16:18]. Well hell to us is damnation, the fires of Gehenna. No, it isn’t that at all; “the gates of Hades.” Now the Greek word Hades is made of an alpha privative. If you want to make a “not,” a negation in Greek, you put an “a” in front of the word. Like theos is God, a-theos doesn’t believe in God; gnōsis is “know,” a-gnōsis doesn’t know—that is the way the Greek language is built. Put an “a,” they call it an “alpha-denial,” an alpha privative, an alpha “take it away.” So “a,” and it is aspirated in this Greek word Hades; an aspirated a, and idein is “to see,” so alpha privative “to see.” It refers to a place where you cannot see it, and that was the Greek idea of where our departed dead go. “We don’t know, we cannot see.” It is dark there, so they called it Hades, the place where you cannot see where your loved ones are going beyond the grave; Hades. That identical word is in Hebrew: sheol refers to the same thing. It is just a country, it is the land, it is the bourne toward which all of us inevitably move and into which all of those who have died have gone.
Now the Greeks divided it into two parts; they divided it into Elysia—the Elysian Fields was such a common word for heaven and Paradise—and they divided it into tartarus, into torment. Now the Hebrews did the same thing. They divided sheol, that country into which all of our beloved dead go, they divided it into Abraham’s bosom, or paradise, or heaven, Abraham’s bosom [Luke 16:22]—and they divided it into gehenna: “where the fire is never quenched, and the worms never die” [Mark 9:44, 46, 48]. Now that is hell, and only that is hell like you use the word hell.
Now the Lord said here, “The gates of Hades” [Matthew 16:18]. In the Talmudic literature, in the literature of that day, it referred to nothing but death. The gates of Hades; gates don’t attack, gates are closed to keep in, to bind down. And that is all the Lord is saying there. “I am going to build My ekklēsia on this great foundation of the deity of the Son of God, and death shall not kata ischuō,” kata is down, and ischuō is to be able. And the gates of hell, the gates of Hades, the gates of death; death shall not be able to hold it down, but it will rise and live forever! [Matthew 16:18].
Now I want to take that two ways, and I think the Lord meant both ways. One: that His church, His ekklēsia, would be here in perpetuity, down to the end [Matthew 16:18]. And second: that the saints in that church—the members, the redeemed, the blood-bought in that church [1 Peter 1:18-19]—though they fall into the heart of the earth, and are corrupted, and identified in the dust of the ground, God shall raise them up! [1 Thessalonians 4:14-17]. Hell, Hades, death shall not hold it down; God shall raise it up [Matthew 16:18].
Now in the time that remains, let me discuss those two things. First: death cannot waste away or destroy God’s ekklēsia, His churches. They will continue in perpetuity, on, and on, and on, until He comes again [Matthew 16:18]. The churches are going to be here, don’t you worry and don’t you be overly fearful. Liberalism wastes it. Modernism cuts out its foundation. Many of the false philosophies and the attacks of pseudoscience seek to destroy it. And men dressed in the cloth of the clergy and standing in the sacred pulpit itself, and they besmirch it, and belittle it, and mock it, and sometimes are unworthy of it. But don’t you worry your heart; it continued yesterday. Tertullian, the incomparable Roman lawyer who flourished in 200 AD, Tertullian, speaking to a group of Roman officials, said, “We are but as of yesterday, comparatively a new group, yet we have filled your towns, and filled your hamlets, and filled your cities, and filled your camps, and filled your army, yea, and the Roman Forum and the Senate also!” That was in the day when they burned them at the stake, or crucified them, or fed them to the lions; Tertullian said that.
And it continues today. Anywhere in the earth there is an open Bible, you can begin and you can found a true apostolic, New Testament ekklēsia—anywhere in the world, anywhere in the world. And if I had about an hour or so, we would follow through some of the marvelous, incomparable stories of how just that opened Book has founded and launched true apostolic New Testament churches today, today anywhere, anywhere. And it will continue in perpetuity to the time of the end; the churches are going to be here until the rapture, until God takes them out [1 Thessalonians 4:14-17]. For do you notice the next verse speaks of the kingdom? Did you ever notice that? “The gates of hell shall not prevail against it” [Matthew 16:18]. Then He speaks of the kingdom! [Matthew 16:19]. The churches, the ekklēsia of the Lord will be here—be here, be here, in power, and in glory, and in true apostolic witness just like it was there in the Book. It will be here until the Lord calls us home and the kingdom comes [Matthew 16:18-19].
All right, the second part of that: and it will survive into the eternity of the eternities [Matthew 16:18]. Hell destroys everything. All of the relationships we know in this world are destroyed in death. Yesterday, the ravenous maw, the voracious appetite, the insatiable grasping of the grave—yesterday it took a deacon, tomorrow it will take the pastor, and the next day all of his fellow believers. Never satiated, never filled: death.
And it destroys every relationship we make in life: political, social, economic, marital, all dissolved in death—all, all, all except one. The relationship we establish in Christ shall abide forever. For the gates of the netherworld, the gates of the grave, of death, shall not kata ischuō, be able to hold it down! [Matthew 16:18] But out of that land of corruption, and decay, and waste, and death, God shall speak a triumphant word. And His saints, His people, His church, His ekklēsia shall rise to live forever! [1 Thessalonians 4:13-17]. And that is the only relationship that shall sustain the ravages of that pale horseman [Revelation 6:8]—the one we establish in Christ, in the church [Matthew 16:18].
You want to see your mother again? Was she a Christian? You be a Christian, and you will see your mother again. Do you want to see the face of God? Do you want to be with the Lord’s children? Find God now in the first apocalypse, accepting the saviorhood, the deity, the redemption of Jesus Christ [Titus 2:13], and the second apocalypse will be given you at the end time when the Lord shall speak and the trumpet shall sound, and out of the heart of the earth, out of the very dust of the ground, out of the depths of the sea, God’s children shall stand and live in His sight [1 Thessalonians 4:16-17]. That is what the Lord was saying [Matthew 16:18].
When I was a teenager I started preaching, as you know, when I was seventeen years old. Most everybody has a period in his lifetime when he writes poetry. You have just got in you, and you just cannot help that, that is just part of you, you write poetry. Well, I came into that period of life when I was a teenager, starting to preach, and I was writing poetry. And in those days, I was just filled with the thoughts of God, and of the Lord, and of heaven, and of my little churches. I preached three times every weekend: Saturday night, Sunday morning, and Sunday night. And I’d prepare those sermons, and I would think about them, and pray about them, and go out and deliver my soul to those longsuffering country people, God bless them. God bless them. Well, in those days, I wrote a poem entitled, “The Church of the Living God,” and it closes with an earnest appeal. In your sufferance and in your kindness, I want to read that poem. Only time I ever did this in my life; I want to read the poem. Here it is:
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 aught 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 hope of God.
[“The Church of the Living God,” W.A. Criswell]
Do it. Do it. Out in this unbelieving, rejecting world, there is nothing but final defeat, and despair, and death. It is inevitable. But in the household of faith, in the ekklēsia of our Lord, there is light, and life, and glory now, and into the ages of the forever [John 1:4; 1 Corinthians 12:27]. Come. Come. Come. “Pastor, today, I take the Lord as my Savior” [Ephesians 2:8]. Or, “Pastor, today, we are putting our lives in the fellowship of this dear church. My wife, and my children, all of us are coming now.” While we sing this song of appeal, come. If you are in the back row of that highest balcony, come. The throng on this lower floor, into the aisle and down to the front, “Here I am, preacher, I give you my hand, I’ve given my heart to God.” Make it now. Make it this morning. Decide for Jesus now. Come, come, while we stand and while we sing.