Note: The following is a transcript of the message I preached on November 17, 2013 at the last service of Sudden Valley Community Church.
Consider these statistics: According to a Barna Study, 3500-4000 churches in America close every year. If we take the low number, that’s 70 churches per state, five churches per state per month.
There are all kinds of reasons churches close—from the good to the tragic and everything in between. Suffice it to say that what we are doing today is not unique in 2,000 years of church history.
In fact, you recall that in the book of Revelation Jesus dictated letters to seven churches. These were undoubtedly large and influential churches. All seven of them ceased to exist many centuries ago. Even in America with over 200 years of history, it is extremely rare to find a church more than 100 years old. You can find them, but they are very few and very far between.
Every month all around the world small groups of people come together to start a new local church. And every month small groups of people come together for the last time to close a local church.
Just like losing a loved one—either at four years old or a hundred years old—no one wants to see a local church die. If you would have asked me six months ago, I would have told you that I never want to be part of a church closing. If you were to ask me now, I still don’t want to be part of a church closing; but there are times when you must do things you simply don’t want to do.
Closing a church—no matter what the circumstances—is tragic because there are relationships that will never be what they once were or could be. There are joys that will never be experienced and sorrows that will not be shared. Someone said to me recently, “There is nothing to celebrate in the disbanding of a Body of Christ.” And I essentially agree. There may be things to celebrate regarding that Body of Christ, but the actual disbanding is not one of them.
But there’s something else that makes all this so difficult. And that is that whenever a church closes, it appears as though the gospel has failed. It appears as though the Kingdom of God has suffered a defeat. It appears as though the universal Body of Christ has lost an essential member.
What I want to do is assure you, from the lips of Jesus Christ the Head of the Church, that though it may appear that way, that is emphatically not the case. So if you would, follow along as I read Matthew 16:13-23, and then we’ll focus our thoughts on verse 18.
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He was asking His disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still 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.” And Jesus said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall have been loosed in heaven.” Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ. From that time Jesus began to show His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day. Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, “God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You.” But He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.”
Whenever we come to a familiar text like this, it is easy to ignore the context and just get what we want out of it. But it is the very context that makes it that much more applicable to us today. You see Jesus and His disciples were in Caesarea Philippi. That is the furthest Northeast region of Israel. They’d been spending the last few months in the northern region of Israel covering the cities around the Sea of Galilee, going all the way West to Tyre, a port city on the Mediterranean Sea, and back again.
Caesarea Philippi was so near the border that it was heavily populated with Gentiles. This extensive traveling meant a lot of personal instruction from Jesus to the disciples, but very little public ministry. In fact it is likely that the disciples were somewhat confused by all this.
They knew Jesus was more than a prophet. They knew He was not John the Baptist or Elijah or Jeremiah. They knew—as Peter himself confessed—that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of living God. They were not confused on that issue. The reason for their confusion was that Jesus—as the Messiah—was not conducting Himself or His ministry in the way they expected.
The Jews assumed the Messiah would come and conquer and usher in a new and glorious kingdom for Israel. And the disciples had the exact same expectation. With that expectation, it must have seemed like Jesus was wasting precious time and energy in these scarcely populated northern regions when He should be taking advantage of the groundswell of support in Jerusalem and other highly populated areas.
The disciples no doubt had their ideas of how the Messiah should accomplish His mission, and Jesus was not measuring up. So Jesus has to confront them head on. In doing so Jesus didn’t beat them over the head, but instead gave them hope by promising success.
I just want direct your attention to two simple statements of Jesus that give us hope for today. As sad and difficult as this day is, it is not a hopeless day. And here why:
I Will Build My Church
First, Jesus said, “I will build my church.” Such a simple statement, but O how vast are its implications. It is not we who build His church. Christ is the Builder. The success of the church is not dependent on us and our abilities and our finances and our faithfulness. No, the success of the church is dependent solely on the faithfulness and power of Jesus Christ.
The word “church” here is the first of two times it is used in all the Gospels. Jesus uses it in the way the disciples would have understood it at the time, namely, to refer to an assembly of people; it refers to those who come together for a purpose. Here, it is not people who come together on their own. Rather, Jesus says it is, “my church.” That possessive pronoun is emphatic in the Greek.
This assembly is a group that Jesus brings together. They come together under His banner, in His name, for His mission, under His authority.
In saying that Jesus will build His church Jesus is indicating that the church is something more than a casual gathering. He is saying that He will put together an unstoppable and eternal movement. This movement will not be centered around an idea but a person. It will not grow through human ingenuity but divine enablement. It will not succumb to the natural forces of this world but will outlast every institution made by man and overcome every enemy.
The Gates of Hades Shall Not Prevail Against It
In addition to saying, “I will build my church,” notice that Jesus went on to say, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” Hades is the better translation there, not hell. Hades is the grave, the place of the dead. It is not hell as opposed to heaven, but the place of the dead as opposed to earth, the place of the living.
As such, Hades is not a reference to Satan and his demons. So Jesus is not saying that hell as represented by the Devil and his demons will fail in their attacks against the church. Instead He is saying that death itself shall not prevail. Consider also that Jesus uses the phrase, “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.”
Gates are not exactly an offensive weapon. No one’s confidence is bolstered when carrying a large iron gate into battle. Gates have one purpose—to regulate entering and leaving. In the case of the gates of hades, they serve the twofold purpose of allowing people into death, and preventing anyone from leaving death.
Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:26 that death is the last enemy. It is, in that sense, the ultimate enemy. The strength of any enemy is measured by how much it is able to wield the power of death. Though spiders vary in size and ugliness, it is their deadly venom that determines whether you should be afraid of them. Felines vary in size, but the lion’s ability to kill is the reason we call it the king of the jungle.
The reason we no longer have Amorites, Canaanites, Girgashites, and Jebusites on the planet is not because they fell into financial disarray or moral scandal, but because they all died. The reason Assyria and Babylon and Rome no longer exist is because the power of the sword was inflicted on them.
Organizations often end when their founder dies and no one is passionate enough to keep them going. Family businesses close when the owner dies and there is no one to take over. Ethnic groups, nations, organizations, and businesses all succumb to the power of death. The gates of hades ensure that those who die cannot return to preserve their interests.
Not so with the church. Jesus promised, “I will build my church and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.” The Jewish leaders understood that if you kill the shepherd, the sheep scatter; so they crucified Jesus. But the gates of Hades did not prevail against the church.
When the followers of Jesus began to multiply out of control, the hatred of the Jews reached the boiling point and they stoned Stephen to death. But the gates of Hades did not prevail against the church.
Herod pleased the Jews by beheading James, the leader of the Jerusalem church. But the gates of hades did not prevail against the church.
Nero thought he could sanction widespread persecution and encourage the killing of Christians. But the gates of hades did not prevail against the church.
All over the world local churches were closing because their members were imprisoned or put to death. But the gates of Hades did not prevail against the church.
The day came when the renowned church of Ephesus—started by Paul and led for many years by Timothy and the Apostle John—closed its doors. But the gates of Hades did not prevail against the church.
My friends, in the last 2,000 years, hundreds of thousands of churches have closed their doors. But the gates of Hades has never and will never prevail against the church.
Do not be deceived. The closing of Sudden Valley Community Church is sad and difficult because of what is does mean for each of us in many different respects. But it is not as though the Word of God has failed. The church marches on.
Today we leave from here and tomorrow we join another church. We continue to worship and serve and edify and encourage and teach and learn and make disciples. The task of the church is not done and cannot be stopped until our Bridegroom comes to take us home. Until then, Jesus will continue building His church, and the gates of Hades will continue to sit in its corner defeated and powerless.
So my friends, be encouraged. Sudden Valley Community Church was an instrument in the Redeemer’s hands. As we’ll hear from your own lips in a few minutes, the Lord has used this local church to build His church. And as we, His church, move out from here, He will continue to use us as we join ourselves to other local churches.
This is not a time to take off our armor and sit and sulk. This is a time to stand. So stand with me as we call one another to rise up and put our armor on to serve the King of kings.