The Church God Can Bless
James C. Denison
The Dallas Cowboys begin their 48th season today. They have won five Super Bowls, tied for most in NFL history. They have 16 players in the NFL’s Hall of Fame in Canton, and will send another when Emmitt Smith becomes eligible in three years. They will soon occupy a $1 billion stadium, the most expensive ever built. They have a payroll of $82 million. But none of that matters when they play the New York Giants tonight, does it? They believe they can win the Super Bowl this year. If they don’t, nothing else they do will count.
Today we pause to celebrate all that God has given our family of faith. A $34.7 million facility, nearly paid for in full. We begin our fourth morning worship service today. We again ended the year with a giving surplus because of the faithfulness of our people. You’ve heard some of the good news from our summer ministries, as we have completed another successful season of Vacation Bible School, children’s sports and day camps, Youth Camp, and mission trips around the globe.
For what purpose? What is our Super Bowl? What is the victory which matters most? There is only one purpose God can bless, and therefore only one kind of church he can bless. If we want to be that church, we must fulfill that purpose. If we want God to bless our lives and our families, we must fulfill that purpose. In this league, there is no prize for second place.
Why to attack Hell
Let’s get the setting in our minds again.
Two years or so into his public ministry, Jesus and his disciples have taken some time to get away, retreating to Caesarea Philippi on the far northern edge of Galilee. This was the resort center of antiquity, the Vail or Jackson Hole of the first century. High in the hills, its climate is always cool.
Jesus and his friends were gathered in one of the most beautiful places in that part of the world. Surrounded by forests and hills, with a creek meandering at their side, they finally had some rest and quiet. I’ve been there twice–it is my favorite place to visit in the Holy Land.
Now they had time to reflect on their years together. Jesus asked them, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (v. 13). They answered with the popular speculation. “But what about you?” he pressed the point. And Simon Peter, their impetuous, boastful, mercurial leader, got something right. He became the first person in history to utter the words, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16).
To this declaration Jesus replied, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18). When we began our summer series with this text, we emphasized the first part of Jesus’ proclamation: the fact that this is his church.
His Greek was emphatic: “I will build the church of me.” It is a genitive of possession: this church belongs to Jesus and to him alone. Not to Jesus and us, or Jesus and the deacons, or Jesus and the culture. This is his church, or it’s not a church.
If we’re calling the shots and running the show, we can build a wonderful benevolent organization, a religious society, a Rotary Club with a Bible study, but we cannot build a church. Only Jesus can build a church. And he builds only the church that is his. We are his, or we are not a church.
Today we need to emphasize the second half of his sentence: “and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Literally, “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The word means “to have strength against,” “to stand up to.”
Gates do not attack–they defend. We put signs on our gates that say “Bad Dog” to warn people away. When last did you see a sign, “Bad Gate”? Who has a vicious gate at their house, a gate which attacks you when you come near?
We had to replace the backyard fence at our house a couple of years ago, and put up a new gate as well. It has since warped in the weather so that I’ve had to cut and saw and sand it several times. Try doing that to a Doberman. But my gate just sits there in silence. It opens and shuts, and does nothing else. That’s what gates do.
Here Jesus speaks of the “gates of Hades.” He was pointing to a cave high on the cliff overhead, a cave which leads to a cavern which bores down into the earth. The ancients called it the “gates of the underworld” or the “gates of Hades.” It’s still there today. It hasn’t moved. It doesn’t threaten anyone. You can look at it, and climb up to it, and say what you want about it, and it can’t strike back. It’s just a gate.
In Jesus’ metaphor, it’s the gate which leads to Hades, to the lair of the dead, to the realm of the enemy.
Everyone and everything on earth is on one side of that gate or the other. You either belong to God or you belong to Satan. You serve your Lord or you serve his enemy. There’s no middle ground, no neutral Switzerland of the soul, no demilitarized zone. Every person on earth is claimed either by God in Christ or by Satan and his demons.
It is our job to attack the gates of Hades so we can rescue those who are imprisoned on the other side. It is our job to reclaim souls from hell for heaven. This is why Jesus said he builds his church. It is our one reason for existing. It is the only purpose he will bless.
How to attack Hell
Everything we celebrate today has been built by God for this one purpose. How do we fulfill it? How do we win this victory? How can we be the church and the people God can bless?