In Matthew 16:13, Jesus asked His disciples who He was. This is an important question because a correct understanding can make all the difference between eternal life and eternal death. “And Simon Peter answered and said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘blessed are you, Simon BarJonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.’” Now in verse 18 there is a play on words that does not come through in the English translation, so I would like to insert the Greek words. “’And I also say to you that you are [petros] Peter, and on this [petra] rock 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 16:18, 19. This is tremendous authority –not just earthly authority that has to do with eternal life.
Before we examine this question of church authority, let us look first of all at the text that says, “you are petros.” The word petros, which in Latin is the same as Peter, means a stone, while a petra is a very large boulder or rock.
On what rock is the church built? Let us allow Peter to give us his understanding of what Christ meant by the statement He made to him. “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 is talking about Jesus Christ as the Chief Cornerstone.
This agrees with the apostle Paul, who said, “Now therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.” Ephesians 2:19-22
All through the Scriptures you will find that Jesus is described as that supernatural, living Rock in which His children hide and find security, stability, safety, and salvation. Jesus spoke of Himself as the Cornerstone when He said, “And whoever falls on this stone will be broken; but on whomever it falls, it will grind him to powder.” Matthew 21:44
In Matthew 18:19, it appears that the keys were given to Peter, though, as we look in other Scriptures, it is evident that they were given to the rest of the apostles and to the entire church. (See John 20:21-23.) It was by the misuse of Jesus’ statement to Peter that the bishops of Rome attained authority over the nations of Europe during the Dark Ages. They said, “We have received apostolic authority from Peter. We have the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and we can shut you out and send you to hell, or we can give you eternal life.” When Bible-believing Christians dissented, before they were burned at the stake they were clothed with robes and miters on which there were painted demons, snakes, and devils. The church authorities would say, “Not only are you going to die, but we are consigning you to hell; and you are going to burn there forever.”
Before Jesus conferred authority on His apostles, He breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (See Ibid.) This is also clear from Jesus’ statement to Peter when He said, “for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.” Only people who are filled with the Holy Spirit have the divine authority of the church.
The question of apostolic succession has agitated the minds in the Christian world for hundreds of years. Who are the successors of the apostles? The way to understand this is to ask a question that was commonly asked in Christ’s day. Who is the true church? Who are Abraham’s seed?
This is a question that agitated the minds of the Jews a good deal. The Jews told Jesus that they were Abraham’s descendants. (See John 8:33.) They believed that they were saved; but Jesus said, “You don’t live like Abraham, You’re not working the works of Abraham. Therefore, you really are not Abraham’s seed.” He denied that they were Abraham’s seed because they did not have a character like Abraham.
The Bible says that we are going to be judged according to our works. That is the same as saying that we are going to be judged according to our character. Historic Seventh-day Adventists still believe that judgment is on the basis of your works—your character. This is why Ellen White said that the day of God 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 goes along with it. In the day of judgment, they are going to find out that their profession is worthless unless their character coincides with the profession. (See Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary, vol. 7, 970.)
Now if you profess to be Seventh-day Adventist, you profess that you are a member of that church that is mentioned in Revelation 12:17 “who keep the commandments of God and have the testimony of Jesus.” You profess to be a part of that group of people that it talks about in Revelation 14:12 where it says, “Here is the patience of the saints; here are those who keep the commandments of God and the faith of Jesus.” That is what you profess; but if you do not keep the commandments of God and have the faith of Jesus, if you do not have the testimony of Jesus, what good is your profession going to do? It will do no good.
Where did the concept come from that the church is the congregation of goodly men only? It came from the New Testament. Wherever you have a group of people who are filled with the Holy Spirit and are living godly, righteous lives, when they meet together and assemble and worship, that is a church. The Reformers all taught this concept; the Waldenses believed it. By the way, if they had not believed it, they could not have had a church. There would not have been a Reformation. They could not have remained true unless they understood who the church was. That time is coming again. It is right upon us. If you do not understand who the church is, the pressure will be so great that you will not be able to remain faithful and true.
The Bible teaches that it is character that counts. Now do not misunderstand; you do not earn salvation. Salvation is a gift; but let me tell you, it is a conditional gift. If you do not have the character qualification, you are not going to receive the gift. The apostles Paul, Peter, James, and John are all clear about that.
This concept was clearly understood by the great Protestant Reformers. One of the early leaders of the church, Claude of Turin, said, “Know thou that he only is apostolic who is the keeper and guardian of the apostle’s 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.” J.A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 1, 22
There was a remnant of the apostolic church in the land of Italy known as the Waldenses. They were terribly persecuted; and if you read such books as Martyrs Mirror, you will find that one of the main issues in the understanding of the Waldenses was the issue of who and what the church is. The Waldenses believed that they were the spiritual descendants of the apostles, and, therefore, they were the church. They were a perpetual reminder of what the church used to be; and as long as they were around, they testified to how far professed Christendom had departed from the original faith. For this reason they were bitterly persecuted.
You see, the battle of the Reformation had largely to do with the vital issue of who and what the church is. As long as people were afraid that there was someone who could say, “I am going to shut the kingdom of heaven against you and send you to hell,” there could be no Reformation.
On one occasion Tyndale was in a debate with a Roman Catholic by the name of More. During this debate, More said: “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? [Now notice his reasoning] 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 begets 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 the word church, you understand nothing but a multitude of shaved and 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 words for salvation, as penance, saints, merits, and friars codes. Now he that has no faith to be saved through Christ is not of Christ’s church.”
Calvin went through a period of great struggle and doubt in his mind over this issue. “The doubts by which his soul was now shaken, drew 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. To what shall he cling?….
“’There can be no church,’ we hear Calvin saying to himself, ‘where the truth is not.’…
“In fine, Calvin concluded that the term ‘Church’ could not make the society that monopolised the term really ‘the Church.’ Highsounding titles and lofty assumptions could give neither unity nor authority; these could come form the Truth alone; and so he abandoned ‘the Church’ that he might enter the Church—the Church of the Bible.” J.A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 2, 152, 154
Of John Knox, the Scottish Reformer, it is said, “Knox’s idea of a Church was, in brief, 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.” Ibid., vol. 3, 496
Taussan was a Danish Reformer. He drew up a confession which became the confession of the Protestants in Denmark. In this confession it was declared that the Holy Scriptures were 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 any one out of that Church, unless such shall have first cut himself off from the communion of the faithful by impenitence and sin.” Ibid., vol. 2, 42
The church is where Christ is. There can be no church without the presence of the deity. “Where Christ is even among the humble few, this is Christ’s church, for the presence of the High and Holy One who inhabiteth eternity can alone constitute a church.” The Upward Look, 315. The church is where the Holy Spirit is. It is where Jesus is, who said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life.” John 14:6. That is the spiritual building of the church. Now if I leave the truth, what have I done? I have left the church.
For many years Romanists have accused the Protestants of heresy and of separation from the true church; but Ellen White says in The Great Controversy, 51, that this accusation applies rather to themselves because they are the ones who laid down the banner of Christ and departed from the faith that was once delivered to the saints. And when you depart from the faith, when you leave the truth, you have left the church. The church stays right there with the truth because the church is “the pillar and ground of the truth.” The Great Controversy, 376. It was when Calvin began to understand this that it set his mind free. “‘There can be no church,’ we hear Calvin saying to himself, ‘where the truth is not.’… In fine, Calvin concluded that the term ‘Church could not make the society that monopolised the term really ‘the Church.’ High-sounding titles and lofty assumptions could give neither unity nor authority; these could come from the Truth alone.” J.A. Wylie, The History of Protestantism, vol. 2, 154. What is it that gives unity and authority? It is the truth; and if you leave the truth, you have no authority.
It is time for Historic Adventists to wake up to the reality that our profession must coincide with our character or our profession is worthless. (See The Desire of Ages, 107.)
Have you heard somebody say, “Well, the church is going through”? Well, I believe that. In fact, I believe that the church has always gone through. I believe that the church went through in Samuel’s time. Most of the professed people did not go with it. I believe the church went through in Jeremiah’s time and Daniel’s time, and I believe the church went through in the time of Jesus and the apostles. Who was the church in the time of Jesus?
Let me ask you a question. When Jesus came down to this world, do you think that He was here in the flesh? Of course He was. The church is His mystical body. He was the head of it then, and He is the head of it now. So who was the church when Jesus was here? It is very simple, friends; it was the people who followed Jesus. That is who it was, and that is still who it is.
A church is not just bricks and mortar or corporations or theology. A church is people who are filled with the Holy Spirit; and as a result of being filled with the Holy Spirit, they are spoken of in the Bible as living stones, stones that emit light all around. Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.” Mathew 5:14
The Jews of Christ’s day called themselves the true church. Jesus said, “If you do not believe that I am the One, you are going to die in your sins.” That is about the most terrible thing that could happen to anyone. If you are a Christian, death is just a moment of silence and darkness. That is not the problem. But if you die in your sins, death will be forever. One of our greatest dangers is that we will be deceived, thinking that we are part of the church because we make a profession but not having a character to back it up. Unless we live the life, we are lost. The time is coming when every eternal destiny will be fixed. May the prayer of each one of our hearts be, “Lord Jesus, help me to have a character that will coincide with my profession.”