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I use this newsletter to send Bible studies as much as once per week, sometimes less, but never more. See back issues.

Rebuilding the Foundations: Chapter 5

Building on the Right Rock

Now when Jesus came into the parts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of Man, am?”
   They said, “Some say John the Baptizer, some, Elijah, and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”
   He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
   Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”
   Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. I also tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give to you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will have been bound in heaven; and whatever you release on earth will have been released in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13-18)

Roman Catholics love this passage. They claim that the pope is the sole heir of these promises to Peter. The Protestant reaction to this is to focus on proving that Peter is not the rock. We argue that the rock is really Peter's confession, or we argue that Peter never went to Rome. We argue against Rome, but that is the extent of our dealing with the passage.

Notice, though, the word "rock" in the passage. When we ignore this passage, we are ignoring something foundational.

If Jesus is building his church on something, then we should be cooperating with him. When we establish churches, we are not building them in our own name. We are building in Jesus' name. We should build our churches on the right rock! As it turns out, we do not have to argue with the Roman Catholics about what rock to build upon. While they argue that Peter is the rock, they admit that Peter's confession is also the rock. Their Catechism says:

Moved by the grace of the Holy Spirit and drawn by the Father, we believe in Jesus and confess: "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." On the rock of this faith confessed by St. Peter, Christ built his Church. (Catechism of the Catholic Church, par. 424).

I would resolve the conflict between the Protestants and Catholics by pointing out that Peter was the first person to make the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Since that confession is the rock on which Jesus will build his Church, and since Peter was the first one to make that confession, then Peter became the first of many rocks to be laid on the foundation of himself.

You do not have to agree with the way I resolve the conflict, but if you are a Bible believer are a follower of Jesus, you do have to agree that Matthew 16:13-18 is important. In fact, you have to admit that when Jesus talks about a rock and building on it, the passage is foundational … which leads me to this question.

If Peter's confession is the rock on which Jesus builds his Church, why aren't we building our churches on that confession?

You might argue that Protestant churches do build on the rock because they all believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. In return, I argue that it is one thing to believe this and quite another to build your church on it. Over my 36 years as a Christian, my range of fellowship has run from several Pentecostal denominations to charismatic movement churches to Baptist to "non-denominational" and has included interaction with Presbyterians and Methodists. Across the board, all of them have been building their churches on the confession that Jesus died for their sins.

I suspect your experience has been the same. Have you ever run across "the two questions" in a witness training program? I ran across them in both Evangelism Explosion and Continuing Witness Training. Evangelism Explosion was a book written by D. James Kennedy that has been translated into 70 languages since its release in 1974. Continuing Witness Training is a Southern Baptist evangelism program. The two questions are:

  1. Do you know for certain you are going to heaven?
  2. If you were to die tonight, and God asked you, "Why should I let you into my heaven?" What would you say?

The answer we were taught to look for was anything that had to do with Jesus dying for our sins. "The blood of Jesus" would have been a perfect answer for us.

Everyone knows that if you are going to go out witnessing, you need to tell people that Jesus died for their sins. Everyone knows … except the apostles.

Many years ago, I did a Wednesday evening radio program in Sacramento. One day I got the idea to compare our modern Gospel outline with that of the apostles. I went to a Christian bookstore and purchased twenty-three different Gospel tracts. I went home and listed the topics that were covered. Since a couple were testimony tracts, no one item was on every tract, but twenty-one of the twenty-three covered the fact that Jesus died for our sins. I was in no way expecting, nor was I prepared for what I found in the Book of Acts.

Before you throw this book away, let me affirm strongly that I believe that Jesus died for our sins. Ephesians 1:7 says, "In [Jesus] we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses." Colossians 1:14 practically repeats that. Jesus told us to eat a meal in his memory. When he did so, he lifted up a cup and said, "This is my blood of the New Covenant, which is poured out for many for the remission of sins" (Matt. 26:28). Not only did Jesus die for our sins, but we are supposed to remember it every time we break the bread and drink the cup of communion. Jesus' death for our sins is all over the New Testament … except in the book of Acts.

It is not that it is absent from Acts, either. Acts 20:28 says, "Take heed, therefore, to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the assembly of the Lord and God which he purchased with his own blood." The death of Jesus for our sins is absent, however, from every sermon the apostles preached to the lost. On that day, many years ago, I tried to outline the sermons of the apostles to the lost. Those can only be found in the Book of Acts, of course, because the letters are all written to Christians. The outstanding topic in the apostle's sermons was the resurrection. They mentioned that Jesus died, of course, because no one can rise from the dead without dying first, but not one Gospel sermon in Acts mentions that he died for sins.

I was stunned to find this out. I absolutely did not expect to find this when I began outlining the preaching to the lost in Acts.

Because I have 25 years of experience with evangelical reactions to this simple truth, I want to affirm again that the apostles did teach atonement through Jesus' blood to the churches! They wrote about the atonement throughout their letters to the churches and to Christians. I am simply pointing out the fact—the easily verifiable fact—that the apostles never told a lost person that Jesus died for his or her sins. Or, if they did, it is not recorded in the Bible.

Instead, the apostles built their churches on the same rock that Jesus said he would build his Church on, the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. John stated this in his Gospel, saying, "Jesus did many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written, that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name" (Jn. 20:30-31). Surely John had this in mind because he was there when Jesus commended Peter in Matthew 16.

Peter had it in mind too. Let's look at the very first time the Gospel was preached to the lost after Jesus died:

"Men of Israel, hear these words! Jesus of Nazareth, a man approved by God to you by mighty works and wonders and signs which God did by him among you, even as you yourselves know, him, being delivered up by the determined counsel and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by the hand of lawless men, crucified and killed; …" (Acts 2:22-23)

Since Peter has just told the Jews that their wickedness happened by the "determined counsel and foreknowledge of God," this is a perfect time to explain to them what God had in mind in his "determined counsel and foreknowledge." It is a perfect time to tell them why Jesus died. But Peter does not take the opportunity.

"… whom God raised up, having freed him from the agony of death, because it was not possible that he should be held by it." (v. 24)

In verses 25-35, Peter argues that the resurrection of the Messiah was predicted in Scripture by David in the Psalms. He concludes with:

“Let all the house of Israel therefore know certainly that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (v. 36)

In the first Gospel sermon ever preached by the Church, Peter mentions Jesus' death as part of an accusation that the Jews had killed their own Messiah, then spends ten verses on the resurrection. The reason is that the resurrection proves that Jesus is Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36). It was important for Peter to prove that Jesus is Lord and Christ because Jesus was and is building his Church on the confession that he is the Messiah, the Son of God!

Peter knew that he should do this because of what Jesus said back in Matthew 16:16-18, but there was also another reason Peter knew to emphasize the resurrection.

We all know that Jesus promised the apostles that once the Holy Spirit came upon them, they would be his witnesses (Acts 1:8). What not many of us ask is what they were witnessing to. If we ask that question and look for the answer, we will find that Peter and the other apostles understood Jesus to mean that they should be witnesses to the resurrection.

  • "Of the men therefore who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, to the day that he was received up from us, of these one must become a witness with us of his resurrection" (Acts 1:21-22).
  • This Jesus God raised up, to which we all are witnesses (Acts 2:32).
  • You denied the Holy and Righteous One, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, and killed the Prince of life, whom God raised from the dead, to which we are witnesses (Acts 3:14-15).
  • With great power, the apostles gave their testimony of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. Great grace was on them all (Acts 4:33).
  • The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you killed, hanging him on a tree. God exalted him with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior, to give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins. We are His witnesses of these things; and so also is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him (Acts 5:30-32).

The reason that the apostles were specifically witnesses of the resurrection is because, as Peter said in Acts 2:36, the resurrection proves that Jesus is Lord, Christ, and Son of God. The Apostle Paul agrees, writing "[He] was declared to be the Son of God with power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1:5).

There are two more passages in Acts like the five quoted above (10:40-42, 13:30-31), but these are enough. The apostles were witnesses of the resurrection because the resurrection proves that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, the confession on which Jesus builds his Church (Matt. 16:16-18).

For example, the apostles testified in Acts 5 to the religious leaders of Jerusalem, who were not willing hearers of the Gospel (vv. 24-28). Peter told the assembled council that God raised Jesus from the dead after "you" killed him on a tree (v. 30). He then used almost exactly the same words as he did in Acts 2:36, saying "God exalted him with his right hand to be a Prince and a Savior" (v. 31). Peter indicates the purpose of this was "give repentance to Israel, and remission of sins" (v. 31).

Remission of sins is mentioned in this passage, but Peter does not tell the Pharisees that remission of sins is tied to Jesus' death. Remission of sins actually is tied to Jesus death (Eph. 1:7; Col. 1:14), but Peter does not tell them that. The same thing is true when Peter preaches to Cornelius in Acts 10:

We are witnesses of everything he did both in the country of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they also killed, hanging him on a tree. God raised him up the third day, and gave him to be revealed, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen before by God, to us, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead. He commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that this is he who is appointed by God as the Judge of the living and the dead. All the prophets testify about him, that through his name everyone who believes in him will receive remission of sins. (vv. 39-43)

Once again, Peter preaches that the Jews crucified Jesus, but he skips the opportunity to say why. He goes straight to the resurrection. Then he told Cornelius that God commanded them to testify to the resurrection and preach that he is Judge of the living and dead. He goes on to the remission of sins, but he ties release from sins to Jesus' name rather than his death.

The point of all of this is that Jesus is building his Church on the confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. The atonement is true, important, and is a central part of apostolic and biblical teaching to the churches, but it is not what the apostles preached to the lost. Instead, they preached the resurrection as proof that Jesus is the Christ and Jesus himself as the one who releases us from sins.

Notice, too, that the terminology is not what is important, but the proclamation of who Jesus is. Peter did not specifically say "Christ, the Son of God" in his sermon on the day of Pentecost. He said that Jesus is "Christ and Lord." He did not specifically say "Christ, the Son of God" to Cornelius. He said Jesus is "Judge of the living and dead." Paul chose to call Jesus Judge on Mars Hill as well, and he follows the apostolic pattern in citing the resurrection as proof (Acts 17:30-31).

Why Building on the Right Rock Is Important

Is it really important to preach that Jesus is the Christ, Lord, Son of God, and/or Judge based on the resurrection rather than preaching that Jesus died for our sins?

To answer this, let's first address a couple scriptural points.

First, when Paul talks about the resurrection proving that Jesus is the Son of God, he said that he received "grace and apostleship" to preach this and bring about "obedience of faith" among the Gentiles (Rom. 1:1-5). If you have preached to the lost that Jesus is Lord and Son of God, then it is obvious how to obey that faith. We bring ourselves under subjection to Jesus because he is Lord, Messiah, and Judge. We learn his teachings, his ways, and his commands, and we obey them and follow him to the best of our ability.

If, though, a lost person simply believes that Jesus has died for his sins, how does that lost person obey that faith? There is nothing to obey. He has simply acknowledged a fact that calls for no action except belief. With this as a foundation it is possible to imagine how the implausible idea that one can be a Christian without obeying Christ could develop.

Second, we have looked at the confession on which Jesus said he would build his Church. We have looked at it enough to now compare it to the faith and confession that Paul said would save us. It is found in Romans 10:9-10, and it says:

If you will confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For with the heart, one believes unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.

Amazingly, this passage has often been used to justify the "sinner's prayer" in which a person says he believes Jesus died for his sins and wants Jesus to come into his heart. This passage says the opposite. It does not mention Jesus' death, our sins, or Jesus coming into our heart. Instead, it focuses on the resurrection and Jesus as Lord. It also tells us that it is confession that leads to salvation. The confession is that Jesus is Lord, and it is based on the belief that Jesus rose from the dead. What a remarkable parallel to Matthew 16!

We see in Scripture, then, that the distinction between the preaching of the apostles and the preaching of modern evangelicals is very important scripturally. Our modern preaching does not offer a faith that can be obeyed, and produces a confession different than the confession prescribed by both Jesus and Paul.

The distinction between apostolic preaching and modern preaching produces practical differences as well. Peter's preaching on the fullness of the day of Pentecost produced three thousand people who "continued steadfastly" in the apostles' teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayers. Today's preaching produces converts who are indistinguishable from the world on a statistical basis.

The findings in numerous national polls conducted by highly respected pollsters like The Gallup Organization and The Barna Group are simply shocking. "Gallup and Barna," laments evangelical theologian Michael Horton, "hand us survey after survey demonstrating that evangelical Christians tians are as likely to embrace lifestyles every bit as hedonistic, materialistic, self-centered, and sexually immoral as the world in general:"' Divorce is more common among "born-again" again" Christians than in the general American population. Only 6 percent of evangelicals tithe. White evangelicals are the most likely people to object to neighbors of another race. Josh McDowell has pointed out that the sexual promiscuity of evangelical youth is only a little less outrageous than that of their nonevangelical peers. (Sider, R. 2005. The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience, Why are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World?. Kindle. Grand Rapids, MI: BakerBooks. p. 13.)

The evangelical reply to this charge is that the apostles' churches were not perfect, either. This is true, but Paul could tell even the troubled church in Corinth that they should purge their loaf by putting wicked ones out of their church (1 Cor. 5:7-13). My father-in-law, who has been a Southern Baptist pastor and active member for more than 40 years, told me with a tinge of sadness in his voice that he had never seen a church of his denomination carry out the instructions of 1 Corinthians 5. If you are an evangelical, and you are surprised by this, then you are in a unique church indeed!

I know that many evangelicals will be offended by these accusations despite the references I gave. That is okay. I am writing for the many who recognize the drastic problems in the evangelical churches and want to do something about it. I am writing to show you that the practical problems you see are rooted in a deeply flawed scriptural foundation so that you have scriptural weapons with which to correct the problems. If you, dear reader, continue to build your ministry on the confession that Jesus died for our sins, you will continue to reap the problems that you see around you in evangelical churches. The wrong root is always going to produce the wrong fruit (cf. Matt. 7:15-20).

With that in mind, it is time to take a deeper look at the foundations of the Christian faith as described in the New Testament.

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