Are You a Living Stone?

Some of the most misunderstood verses in all of the New Testament are found in Matthew 16. In this chapter Jesus asks His disciples who He is and Peter, answering Him, in verse 16, said: “ ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Blessed are you Simon Bar-Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. And I also say to you that you are Peter (Petros), and on this rock (Petra) I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it. And I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:16–19.

The word “petros” that is translated Peter, means a stone. “And on this Petra (a very large boulder or rock) I will build My church.” On what Rock is the church built? Peter knew the Rock upon which the church was built. He wrote: “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. Therefore it is also contained in the Scripture, ‘Behold I lay in Zion a chief cornerstone, elect, precious, and he who believes on Him will by no means be put to shame. Therefore, to you who believe, He is precious; but to those who are disobedient, the stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone, and a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense. They stumble, being disobedient to the word, to which they also were appointed.” 1 Peter 2:4–8. Jesus Christ is the chief cornerstone upon which the church is built. (To see that this authority was given to the whole church, and not Peter alone, see also Ephesians 2:19–22; Matthew 21:44.)

Even though we clearly understand who the rock is, Christ’s command in Matthew 16 has still been difficult for many to understand. Jesus told Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Matthew 16:19. Here Jesus gave the Christian church enormous authority—authority which involves eternal life. (See also Matthew 18:18; John 20:19–23.)

I believe that the reason we have had such a difficult time understanding this verse is because we have not paid careful attention to who and what constitutes Christ’s church. We are in big trouble if we do not know who and what the church is, because the church has the keys to the kingdom of heaven.

It was by means of these Scriptures that the Bishops of Rome attained authority over the then-known world, during the Dark Ages. Dissidents, Bible-believing Christians, were tortured or burned at the stake. Robes and miters, with pictures of demons, snakes and devils painted on them, were placed upon them. Then the bishops would say, “Not only are you going to die, but we are consigning you to hell and you will burn forever.” By means of these Scripture texts, peasants, kings and nations submitted to the Roman authority.

However, many have failed to realize that this authority, which Christ conveyed upon the Christian church, has three big qualifications.

  1. The people that have the authority must have received the Holy Spirit. (See John 20.)
  2. They must have been taught of God. (See Matthew 16.)
  3. And they must follow the principles of gospel order. (See Matthew 18.)

Words From the Reformers

To help us better understand these qualifications, I will share with you what the reformers taught about the church to whom Christ gave this solemn authority.

John Knox, a Scottish reformer, said that the church was “a divinely originated, a divinely enfranchised and a divinely governed society. Its members were all those who made profession of the gospel; its law was the Bible, and its king was Christ.” The History of Protestantism, vol.2, 496, by J. A. Wylie.

Jesus Christ established the church and is the head of it. Olaf Petri (Paterson), a Protestant reformer in the Land of Sweden, said that the church was the body of Christ, and that believers were the members of that body. The question was whether the Pope and Prelates had the power to cast out of the church those that were its living members and in whose hearts dwelt the Holy Spirit, by faith. This he simply denied. “To God alone it belonged to save the believing, and to condemn the unbelieving. The Bishops could neither give nor take away the Holy Ghost. They could not change those who were the sons of God into sons of Gehenna. The power conferred in the eighteenth chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel, he maintained, was simply declaratory; what the minister had power to do, was to announce the solace or loosing of the gospel to the penitent, and its correction or cutting off to the impenitent. He who persists in his impenitence is excommunicated, not by man, but by the Word of God, which shows him to be bound in his sin ’til he repent. The power of binding and loosing was, moreover, given to the church, and not by any individual man, or body of men. Ministers exercise, he argued, their office for the church, and in the name of the church; and without the church’s consent and approval, expressed or implied, they have no power of loosing or binding any one. Much less, he maintained, was this power of excommunication secular; it was simply a power of doing, by the Church and for the Church, the necessary work of purging out notorious offenders from the body of the faithful.” Ibid., vol. 2, 18, 20.

The New Testament teaches clearly that the church is the body of Christ. (See Ephesians 1:22, 23; Colossians 1:18, 24 and 1 Corinthians 12.)

Petris main argument was that those that have the Holy Spirit make up the church. This is revealed in Ephesians 2:22. Baptism by water is a symbol of being baptized by the Holy Spirit. A person is only playing church if the Holy Spirit does not baptize him. “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body.” 1 Corinthians 12:13.

Petri saw that this issue of who had the authority to cast anyone out of the church, required an understanding of what constitutes the church. The church does have divine authority to bind and loose, but the question is, “Who is the church that has that authority?”

Taussan, a reformer in Denmark, drew up a confession which became the confession of the Protestants in Denmark. “It declared Holy Scripture to be the only rule of faith, and the satisfaction of Christ in our room the only foundation of eternal life. It defined the church to be the communion of the faithful, and it denied the power of any man to cast anyone out of that church, unless such shall have first cut himself off from the communion of the faithful by impenitence and sin. It affirmed that the worship of God did not consist in canticles, masses, vigils, edifices, shaven crowns, cowls, and anointings, but in the adoring of God in Spirit and in truth: that ‘the true mass of Christ is the commemoration of His sufferings and death, in which His body is eaten and His blood is drunk in certain pledge that through His name we obtain forgiveness of sins.’ It goes on to condemn masses for the living and the dead, indulgences, auricular confession, and all similar practices. It declares all true believers to be priests in Christ, who had offered Himself to the Father a living and acceptable sacrifice. It declares the head of the church to be Christ, than whom there is no other, whether on earth or in heaven, and of this head all believers are members.” Ibid., 42, 43.

Apostolic Succession

There was a remnant of the apostolic church in Italy called the Waldenses. They were terribly persecuted. One of the main issues with the Waldenses was who is the church? The Waldenses said that they were the Church, the spiritual descendents of the apostles, because they followed the pure teachings of the disciples. For this they were martyred and massacred by the millions. The Waldenses were a perpetual monument of what the church used to be and, as long as they maintained their purity, they were a living witness to testify against how far professed Christendom had departed from the original faith.

One of the early leaders of these people, around 820 A.D., was a godly man by the name of Claude of Turin. Ellen White speaks of him as a devout man who held back the tide of apostasy for a time. Regarding the church, Claude maintained “that there is but one Sovereign in the Church, and He is not on earth…Know thou that He only is apostolic who is the Keeper and Guardian of the apostles’ doctrine and not he who boasts himself to be seated in the chair of the apostle, and in the meantime doth not acquit himself of the charge of the apostle.” Ibid., vol. 1, 21, 22.

The question of apostolic succession has agitated minds in the Christian world for hundreds of years. Some boast, “Our church goes all the way back to the apostles and your church just started at such-and-such time.” Who really are the successors of the apostles? The way to understand this is to ask the question that was commonly asked in Christ’s day— “Who is the true church? Who are Abraham’s seed?”

The Jews told Jesus that they had never been in bondage, because they were Abraham’s descendents. (See John 8:33.) They said, “We are the true church and we are going to have eternal life.” They believed that the Gentiles had no hope of salvation because they were not Abraham’s seed. However, Christ attempted to enlighten their minds. He said, “ ‘I know that you are Abraham’s descendents, but you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you. I speak what I have seen with My Father, and you do what you have seen with your father.’ They answered and said to Him, ‘Abraham is our father.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham.’ ” John 8:37–39. That is, you would have a character like Abraham.

Worthless Profession

Our characters are formed by our habits (or our works) day by day. And all throughout the Bible, it is clearly taught that we will be judged according to our works, or our characters. (See Revelation 20; Matthew 17:27, 28). Ellen White said that the day of judgment would be a day of bitter disappointment to most of the Christian world, because they make a profession but they do not have a character that matches that profession. A profession is worthless unless the character coincides with it.

If you profess to be a Seventh-day Adventist, you profess to be a member of the church mentioned in Revelation 12:17 that keeps the commandments of God and has the testimony of Jesus. However, if you do not keep the commandments of God, nor have the faith of Jesus, your profession is worthless!

Notice how Jesus drove this point home to the Jewish leaders. “‘But now you seek to kill Me, a Man who has told you the truth which I heard from God. Abraham did not do this. You do the deeds of your father.’ Then they said to Him, ‘We were not born of fornication; we have one Father—God.’ Jesus said to them, ‘If God were your Father, you would love Me, for I proceeded forth and came from God; nor have I come of Myself, but He sent Me. Why do you not understand My speech? Because you are not able to listen to My word. You are of your father the devil, and the desires of your father you want to do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own resources, for he is a liar and the father of it.’” John 8:40–44.

These people professed to be the true church, but actually, Christ said, they were of the devil. They were representatives of Satan. (See The Desire of Ages, 36.)

How do you tell who the spiritual successors of the apostles are? The descendents of the apostles are those that teach the same thing the apostles taught and are filled with the same Spirit. (See The Desire of Ages, 466, 467.)

Profession is worthless unless you show, by your life, that you follow the doctrine you profess. Claude maintained in the ninth century, “Know thou that he only is apostolic who is the keeper and guardian of the apostles’ doctrine.”

The evangelicals during the time of the Reformation said that the church is not the clergy, it is the congregation of godly men. What is usually called the church is merely the old synagogue. The true church is the assembly of the just. In other words, as Ellen White said, “From the beginning, faithful souls have constituted the church on earth.” The Acts of the Apostles, 11.

Nowhere in the Spirit of Prophecy does Ellen White say that the church is both the faithful and the unfaithful. It is the faithful only. If you are unfaithful and make a profession, your name may be on a church book but you are not part of the church. Your profession is false. The Jews made a profession, but their characters proved that they were the children of the devil. It is character that counts.

Wherever a group of people is filled with the Holy Spirit, living godly, righteous lives and meeting together in an assembly to worship, there is the church. The reformers all understood this, and it gave them the strength to stand before the Bishops who condemned them to eternal hell fire, and confess, “I know my Redeemer liveth!”

One of these faithful believers wrote, “If two or three cobblers or weavers, elect of God, meet together in the name of the Lord, they form a true church of God.”

Fryth, a leading reformer, in England, who was burned at the stake in the sixteenth century said, “‘I understand the church of God in a wide sense. It contains all those whom we regard as members of Christ. It is a net thrown into the sea.’ This principle, sown at that time as a seed in the English Reformation, was one day to cover the world with missionaries.” The Reformation in England, vol. 2, 126, by J.H. Merle d’Aubigne.

Another true and faithful believer, named Bennett, had this experience. “For a whole week, not only the Bishop, but all the priests and friars of the city, visited Bennett night and day. But they tried in vain to prove to him that the Roman church was the true one. ‘God has given me grace to be of a better church,’ he said.—‘Do you not know that ours is built upon Saint Peter?’—‘The church that is built upon a man,’ he replied, ‘is the devil’s church and not God’s.’” Ibid., vol.1, 465.

Tyndale Debates More

Another famous reformer was William Tyndale, a scholar that translated the Bible from the Greek and Hebrew manuscripts into English. On one occasion Tyndale was in a debate with Thomas More, a Roman Catholic. Their discussion went like this:

“More: We must not examine the teaching of the church by Scripture, but understand Scripture by means of what the church says.

“Tyndale: What! Does the air give light to the sun, or the sun to the air? Is the church before the gospel, or the gospel before the church? Is not the father older than the son? God begat us with His own will, with the word of truth. (James 1:18.) If He who begeteth is before him who is begotten, the word is before the church, or, to speak more correctly, before the congregation.

“More: Why do you say congregation and not church?

“Tyndale: Because by that word church, you understand nothing but a multitude of shaven, shorn and oiled, which we now call the spirituality or clergy; while the word of right is common unto all the congregation of them that believe in Christ.

“More: The church is the Pope and his sect of followers.

“Tyndale: The Pope teaches us to trust in holy works for salvation, as penance, saints’ merits and fryer’s coats. Now, he that hath no faith to be saved through Christ, is not of Christ’s church.” Ibid., 395.

The reformer said that wherever the word is faithfully preached and the sacraments purely administered, there is the church. Rome said, Wherever there is a line of sacramentally ordained men, there and only there, is the church.

The Struggle of Separation

For many of the reformers, who grew up believing this distorted view of the church, the realization of the apostasy and the decision of what they must do in response came only with great difficulty. Calvin, the great Swiss reformer faced a terrible struggle. “The doubts by which his soul was now shaken grew in strength with each renewed discussion. What shall he do? Shall he forsake the church? That seems to him like casting himself into the gulf of perdition. And yet, can the church save him? There is a new light breaking in upon him in which her dogmas are melting away. The ground beneath him is sinking. ‘There can be no church,’ we hear Calvin say to himself, ‘where the truth is not.’” History of Protestantism, vol. 2, 152.

Do you believe that? Paul wrote in 1 Timothy 3:15: “But if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth.” Leaving the truth, is leaving the church. For many years Romanists have accused Protestants of heresy and of separation from the true church. But Ellen White says, “This accusation applies rather to themselves. They are the ones who laid down the banner of Christ and departed from the ‘faith that was once delivered unto the saints.’ Jude 3.” The Great Controversy, 51.

The church stays with the truth because the church is the pillar of the truth. When Calvin began to understand that, it set his mind free. “‘There can be no church,’ we hear Calvin saying to himself, ‘where the truth is not.’…If I shall come back to the truth, as contained in the Scriptures, will I not come back to the church? and will I not be joined to the holy company of prophets and apostles, of saints and martyrs? . . . In fine, Calvin concluded that the term ‘Church’ could not make the society that monopolized the term really ‘the Church.’ High sounding titles and lofty assumptions could give neither unity nor authority; these could come from the Truth alone; and so he abandoned ‘the Church’ that he might enter the Church—the Church of the Bible.” The History of Protestantism, vol. 2, 154.

We are living so near the end that it is time for us, as historic Adventists, to wake up to reality and not be deceived by pretension and profession. Our profession must coincide with our character. Unless our lives are in harmony with God’s law, we are not His people and our profession is worthless.

God’s church is going through as it always has in the past. The church went through in Samuel’s time, however, most of the professed people did not go along with it! The church went through in Jeremiah’s and Daniel’s time. And the church went through in the time of Jesus and the apostles; although the leaders of the professed church were not really a part of God’s church.

Latimer, another Protestant reformer, who was burned at the stake, wrote concerning the church: “Lively stones are needed to build up the temple of God.” The Reformation in England, vol. 2, 42. A church is not just bricks and mortar or corporations or theology. It is people who, as a result of being filled with the Holy Spirit, are spoken of in the Bible as living stones that emit light all around.

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Do you want to be part of that light? Our greatest danger is that we will be deceived, thinking we are part of the light, because we make a profession, but we do not have a character to back it up. What will we do if we come to the Day of Judgment and have only a profession without having the wedding garment on? I cannot think of a more terrible moment, for then it will be all over and each person’s eternal destiny will be forever fixed. It will be too late to change.

But today, my dear reader, it is not too late. Jesus invites you to become a part of His body. He wants you to become a living stone built into that beautiful building of His church. Is eternal life worth everything to you? The decision is yours.