Sermon: St. Matthew 16:13-20 (ILCW A Gospel)
THE CHURCH VS. THE GATES OF HELL
Prayer: Lord Jesus, we ask You to watch over Your Church, to watch over each of us and give us Your Holy Spirit, so that we joyfully confess that there is salvation in no one else than you, and so that we believe that when our sins are forgiven on earth they are forgiven by You, and this is true in heaven. Amen.
Dear people loved by God and purchased by Him to be His own: Grace be unto you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
The devil has a kingdom. That’s what “gates of hell” means – all who belong to Satan, starting with the evil angels, the demons. They’re even called “thrones.” Jesus calls Satan the “ruler of this world.” The devil’s kingdom.
In contrast, Jesus speaks of the “kingdom of God,” and “the kingdom of heaven.” We pray to our Father in heaven: “Thy kingdom come.” This is Christ’s kingdom. The angel told the virgin Mary: “of His kingdom there will be no end” (Lk 1:33). As Jesus began preaching, He said: “The kingdom of heaven is near” (Mk 1:15). He said to Pontius Pilate, “I am a King” (Jn 18:37).
Now, the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan aren’t equal. The devil’s rule is limited. God’s rule isn’t. But if you end up in Satan’s kingdom – in hell, which “was prepared for the devil and his angels” but sadly includes all people who reject Christ – the devil’s rule over you is real. It even extends to this life. The devil can rule a person, but there’s time for that to change.
So if you were Jesus, building His kingdom, whom would you put up against Satan in a battle between these kingdoms? With whom does Christ populate His kingdom? In Norse mythology, Odin collects warriors for the final battle, Ragnarok. But what does Jesus do? He says here that it’s:
The Gates of Hell Vs. the Church
That doesn’t seem right, does it? For His Kingdom, why doesn’t He bring the best of the best, the angels? Instead His kingdom is His Church. The church on earth is filled with sinners. People whose will is naturally the opposite of God’s. People born with a continual tendency to go against God. People who don’t follow orders. Are easily duped by the devil. Do nothing but fail. People who can only be weaker than the devil and his kingdom.
You would think this is doomed. But Jesus says here: “… I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Jesus was speaking to the 12 disciples. They were pretty much the whole church on earth at that time, besides Jesus’ mother Mary, various women who traveled with them, Jesus’ friends Martha, Mary and Lazarus, and also people like the Canaanite woman from last week’s gospel (and her healed daughter), the centurion and his servant Jesus healed, the widow of Nain and her son whom Jesus raised, and others like that who believed in Jesus too, including Peter’s wife and her mother whom Jesus healed.
This tells us what the church is. It isn’t a building. The church consists of everyone who believes in Jesus, who believes what God reveals Him to be. It’s faith that makes you part of His Church, His kingdom.
For the people Jesus came into contact with, that meant the Old Testament promises about Him, and what they saw Him do or heard Him say, and they could see: He is true God, He must be the promised Christ. And yet it wasn’t just their brain working, but that the Holy Spirit worked this faith in them.
For us this faith is based on everything the Bible says and teaches about Him. It isn’t that you reduce the Bible to just what it says about Jesus. It’s hearing and accepting what God’s Law says to you about sin and judgment. It’s hearing and accepting what His Gospel says to you about what Jesus did for you, about the forgiveness of sins, life, and salvation.
Accepting it isn’t your doing, it’s the Holy Spirit working this faith so you receive it as true. It’s not just hearing that it happened, that it’s true. But it’s about your sin, your forgiveness, that He’s your Savior – that that’s true too! So if you’re asked: “Do you believe that Jesus died for you and rose for you?” and: “Do you believe God forgives all your sins?”– and on the basis of the Scriptures, you answer yes, then: Yes, you’re a member of His kingdom, of His church.
This is what Jesus is saying to the disciples. He says: “But who do you say I am?” It’s direct, personal. Jesus says, “you (plural)” – y’all –yet at the same time it’s for each person. Peter speaks for all of them, so he’s really saying: “[We believe that] You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
So here’s faith in the heart, followed by speaking it: confessing. It’s the simplest form of a creed: “You are the Christ, the Son of God.” Last Sunday’s reading from Romans reinforces this; it says first “you believe in your heart” what Jesus did, second “you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus.”
O joy of joys! This is exhilarating! Jesus hears these 12 men confess the true faith. They’re in! They’re in His kingdom! They’re in His Church! He tells Peter how this faith came from God and then says: “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.” This isn’t just emotion coming forth from Jesus, but it’s a promise He makes. As true God, He’s all-knowing. He doesn’t just hope, He knows the gates of hell won’t prevail against His Church.
As Jesus says this, Satan is rubbing his hands. The disciples are easy pickings, he thinks. And that’s true. We know about Peter’s denial later on, and all their bickering about who’s greatest. How weak they are!
We too can wonder how the Church can survive against the gates of hell. We know how weak we are. When you look at the church – thinking here of the local church, not the one holy Christian Church – there can be a lot to be disappointed in. The devil knows how to divide the church. In our country, which is growing more secular all the time, we’re tempted to think that the Church is a tattered, beaten-down, insignificant thing. We can wonder what to even say when a person asks why they should come to our church.
We’re a mission church, still in our early stages, so this scene with Jesus and the Twelve resonates with us. We might wonder how we can make it, how it will grow. The disciples could wonder that too, even after Jesus rose. Everything, everyone, was against them. Weren’t the gates of hell stronger?
Jesus’ answer is: No. And it’s not that the Christians are strong enough. The victory over the gates of hell isn’t done by us. Jesus won the victory when He died and rose from the dead. The devil can’t conquer Jesus. So he attacks Jesus’ church. Satan thinks our sinful weakness plays into his hands. He says: “Hnnh. Just a bunch of pathetic sinners. I’ve got nothing to worry about. Easy.”
But Satan is mistaken. The church being full of sinners makes it so we win. In our sins, our weakness, our worries for the church, where do we turn? To Jesus! To the Conquering One, the risen One. Whatever seems wrong with the church, wherever there is division, wherever there are sins – all of them seeming to be a sign that the church is not holy and bound to fall– we bring it all to Him, and what do we hear? “The gates of hell shall not prevail.”
And there’s that thing with Peter’s name. Here Jesus gave him a new name, He made him a Peter. “I tell you, you are Peter,” meant that confessing Jesus, confessing the true faith, made Peter a “rock.” All his strength is in God’s truth, not in him. When Jesus calls Peter a rock, He uses a word that means it’s like a loose rock or stone. But when He says His Church is built on the rock, that word for rock is a shelf or ledge of rock, a strong foundation.
He makes you a Peter: one who holds onto Christ, the firm foundation. His Word, His truth, is the foundation. That’s why the gates of hell won’t win. When we are weak, in Jesus we are strong. He gives us the strength that the gates of hell can’t overcome. As He makes you a Peter, and that person a Peter, and that one, He makes the Church a Peter. That’s what we have to trust Him to do for our local church.
He’s creating people who believe His Word, believe His truth, love the truth, and confess it with our words and also by sticking tightly with each other, making each other strong by encouragement. If we don’t see or feel it, we have to trust He’s doing it. It starts not with how someone else is doing, but with how I’m doing at this, how I receive it from Him.
That’s what the Church is. The last part of Jesus’ words shows this: where Jesus gives Peter and the apostles “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” that when our sins are forgiven on earth they’re forgiven in heaven. This is when we are His Church: next to each other at the Lord’s Supper, coming as sinners, which the devil thinks is his victory, but surprise! It’s Jesus’ victory! It’s ours! We’re forgiven sinners, holy and blameless, a glorious church, without spot or stain. This is where “we tremble not … they cannot overpower us” (ELH 250:3). Amen!