Reading: Matt. 16:16-18.
That with which we are occupied is the nature of that which issues in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The object is what He has called: "My church". We are not now so much concerned with the contemplation of the object, the church, as with a looking into its essential nature, its spiritual factors upon which, and by which, it is constituted, and the very title itself contains the basic and central thing of our consideration, that which issues with the resurrection of the Lord Jesus.
Now looking at this passage again just for a moment, we recall the familiar elements in it, but do so by way of being able to pass on to something fuller. "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." That is the statement made, and the Lord Jesus says of that statement that it was the result of a revelation from the Father to the one who made it. He took up that statement and declared that upon that truth revealed from heaven, that truth known in heaven, He would build His church. And then almost immediately there comes in a threefold challenge to both the statement and to the church which the Lord declares He will build.
1. The Challenge of the Cross
The first challenge is the challenge of the cross. Notice: "From that time began Jesus to show unto His disciples, how that He must go unto Jerusalem, and suffer many things of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed..." (Matt. 16:21). That is the challenge of the cross from man's side; that is what man will do. "And Peter took Him, and began to rebuke Him, saying, Be it far from You, Lord; this shall never be unto You. But He turned, and said unto Peter, Get thee behind Me, Satan: you are a stumbling-block unto Me; for you do no mind the things of God, but the things of men" (Matt. 16:22,23). You have got a deeper element there; the challenge of Satan through carnal nature. It is a challenge to the church. It is a challenge to the intention of Christ. And then you go deeper still: "...and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it". As we speak of that clause you notice the meaning is: "The house of death" - that is meant by "the gates of Hades". And the 'house of death' at this time, at this point, is seen to be something antagonistic and inimical to the divine intention, to the church which He declares He will build. It is seen on its positive side, not as something neutral or latent, but active, opposing, seeking to gain mastery over, or asserting itself against the church. The gates of Hades, the house of death, shall not have power to overcome or to hold down. You see that threefold challenge to a declaration? A challenge in the realm of man, and that religious man. The challenge in the realm of Satan, active through carnal nature in a disciple. And the challenge coming from the deepest depths, the power of death itself.
And when the Lord Jesus says: "I will build My church" in spite of that threefold challenge, He in effect says that "My church" will be something different from and superior to all that. In resurrection all those things will have been put behind, because if He is now going to the cross, and is going to build His church, it means that He must get past that cross, past that killing, and be alive again, so that it will be the Risen Lord who will build the church, and if so, the threefold challenge, with its content, will have been ruled out and overcome.
Now, if you do but recognise it, from this time onwards those are three of the great things which are continuously opposing the building of the church by the Lord Jesus. Religious man, carnal nature in disciples, and the positive power of death. These are the challenges which all truly spiritual work has to meet, and these are the things which in the building of the church are being continuously overcome.
Now for a great illustration of that you turn to 1 Corinthians and that whole letter just sets forth that truth magnificently. In that letter you have the power of natural religion, the philosophy of natural religion, by which the destiny of man is analysed and systematized, and brought in and accepted. It found its way into the Corinthian church, the first, and perhaps the greatest of the churches in the Greek world. And in the early part of this first letter you see the positive activity of that thing here working against the true church, the spiritual church. There is so much more lying behind these two chapters at the beginning of this letter than we have either time or ability to make clear. If you care to resort to some of the standard works on the life and epistles of Paul, you will get great help. Take up Conybeare & Howson's 'Life and Epistles of Saint Paul' and you will get a lot of light on the matter, and you will discover that the whole realm of Greek philosophy, which had as its object the destiny of man - in other words natural religion, the religion of the natural man, the religion of nature - that had crept in and got a hold. And the apostle has to bring in this tremendous emphasis against the wisdom of this world, the wisdom of man, and he shows how the wisdom of this world, and the wisdom of man had accomplished the most calamitous and terrible things in relation to the Lord's Christ, and therefore was opposed to: "You are the Christ", and being opposed to that, was opposed to: "I will build My church." The wisdom of man expressed in terms of the philosophy of religion is a positive antagonist of the pure spiritual church of the resurrection. You may think that that is remote, that that carries you back to Corinth, away back into the Greek world, but it does not. It is very up to date.
The greatest force today against the Christ of God, the Anointed, and the true church of the resurrection, is what is called Modernism. There is no force in this world more positively detrimental to that which the Lord Jesus determined to have. It strikes first of all at the very heart of things because it strikes at the Person of Christ, and striking at the Person of Christ, it strikes at the very nature of His church. And yet it still keeps a Christ, and it still keeps a church, and still seeks to persecute the building of the church that it calls the church of Christ. And the Christ that it has is the Jesus of history and not the Christ of the resurrection; and the church that it has is the church of man's natural ideas about God.
In the days of Elisha the prophet one of the golden calves which had been set up in Israel had its location in those days in Bethel, the House of God. And, unless we are mistaken, we understand that to mean man's natural ideas about God had come to be the characteristic of the House of God, whereas originally Bethel was divine revelation. Now it is reason versus revelation; now it is man's natural conception of the things of God versus His revelation of His own things. Reason is having a Christ and having a church but not the Christ and not the church. It is, rather, opposed. It is a Christ opposed to the Christ. It is the Jesus of history over against the Christ of God in resurrection. It is the church of man's conceiving over against the church born out of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. These two things are running on through the ages over against one another. And the fact that it is so, forms the battlefield and the conflict of the true people of God. To make that perfectly simple, is it not true that our real spiritual conflict is between that which is revealed by the Holy Spirit as being God's mind about His church, and that which man himself has thought out as being God's idea for His church? That is the battlefield. I can put that in another way. The most difficult task that spiritual men and women have is to bring (now I have got to use a word in a very general sense and not in a perfect sense) "Christian" people to see the real nature of the church which is Christ's Body. Something else has become so deeply entrenched in their mentality, having existed for so many centuries, that immediately you touch that thing, question it, doubt it, you meet something that, but for the power of His resurrection, will smash you. What I have said is this: that the whole established, man-made system of the church, so widespread, so deeply rooted, so firmly grounded, so universally accepted, is a thing which you touch at your peril. And you will find that it is there that you meet one of your main antagonisms.
Let me put it this way. You stand with every bit of your being for the true church, the Body of Christ, as a heavenly thing and not an earthly thing - as a spiritual thing and not a thing of man - and you seek to have that true heavenly, spiritual thing made known and expressed among the people of God. And you run counter to something which will rise up against you in the organised system of the church today, which will, as far as it possibly can, break you. I do not mean that it will come out in open persecution, but you will be conscious that you have roused something and that an issue has been raised. Well, that is what is here. The scribes and the pharisees, the elders, represent the church as it was; the accepted order of things, and they were going to put the Christ to death. And He recognises that as one of the things to be reckoned with, and over against that, the worst that they can do, He said: "I will build My church." Now, it is true that that is one of the things that has got to be met in building the true spiritual church of a resurrection order. I could stay with that much longer and make it much clearer, but I think you see through what I am saying. It is more deeply true than you recognise. Try it, and you will know that what I have said is true. If the Lord has revealed to you the true nature of the church which is His Body, and you minister concerning that, you know quite well you meet something else which is called "the church", and that very thing is out against you, but it is still held to be the church. That is in the beginning of the Corinthian letter.
2. The Activity of Satan through the Carnal Nature of Man
You move into the second challenge as you go on: the activity of Satan through the carnal nature of man. This is a terrific thing that the Lord Jesus says to Simon Peter: "Get behind Me, Satan: you are a stumbling block unto Me." The word there is 'skalandon', a stumbling-block in the way of that object to come into being through that cross, out on the other side, and that has got to be put behind. You come into the Corinthian letter and you find the next thing you meet is that very carnal nature in the disciples. You know what the apostle says here about the natural man, and then he goes on to say: "And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal..." (1 Cor. 3:1), and he said: 'You speak and act as men,' the things of men and man, natural and carnal man. And the conditions at Corinth which represent anything but the true resurrection nature of the church, are resultant from that introduction of natural and carnal elements into the church through these Christians.
Well, we can hurry to our conclusion without going very fully into that for it is true that that church which Christ builds on resurrection ground can never be realized only as every natural and carnal element in believers is ruled out and put behind. The cross of the Lord Jesus represents that. The church which He is building is a testimony to the fact that, in the first place He has triumphed, and gloriously triumphed, over all the antagonism of something which claims to be His and is not; and in the next place, it is the testimony to the fact that He has triumphed gloriously over all the power of carnality and the natural man. And if we are being built in this church of the resurrection, we know quite well that our spiritual progress and development runs parallel with, and proportionately with, the setting aside of that which is of nature, and that which is carnal in us.
3. The Positive Power of the House of Death
And then the third thing: the positive power of the house of death, the gates of Hades; death itself. Turn to 1 Corinthians 15, and there you meet it. The whole chapter deals with the matter of resurrection. The words themselves, 'resurrection' and 'raised' occur twenty-two times in this one chapter, so you can see what the chapter is about.
Now, the striking thing about this chapter is the way in which it begins. Of course when Paul wrote it he did not write it in chapters, and did not say: "Now I come to chapter fifteen"! His is a continual narrative, but at this point he breaks in with: "Now I make known unto you, brethren...". Get the force of that. In all that has been said he comes to the point where he says: "Now... brethren...". I want you to get right into the spirit of that, the atmosphere of that. He has been saying something about a good many things which have arisen, questions which have been asked, things which have been troubling this assembly. He has given an answer to them, has dealt with them, and steadily worked his way through that mass as though he were eager to get to something else. These are serious and important things, but they are by the way. They have arisen and they have to be dealt with, but they are by the way. These are not things in the direct line of the church. This represents a detour, and when he gets to chapter 15 it is as though he has now reached the point he has been longing to reach all the way, and he says: "Now brethren we have got that all off, let us get right back to the beginning of things". "Now I make known unto you, brethren, the gospel which I preached unto you, which also you received...". That is the main thing. All these other things are touched by the main thing; and what is the main thing? "The gospel which I preached unto you wherein also ye stand... For I delivered unto you... first of all that which also I received, how that Christ died for our sins according to the scriptures; and that He was buried; and that He has been raised on the third day according to the scriptures; and that He appeared to Cephas... and last of all... He appeared to me also. Now if Christ is preached that He has been raised from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead?"
And from that point he goes right on with the central place that the resurrection of the Lord Jesus has in his gospel. He hangs everything upon it, or he gathers everything around it. "If Christ has not been raised, then is our preaching vain"; that is one thing, "...and if Christ has not been raised, your faith is vain..."; that is another thing. "Yea, and we are found false witnesses of God; because we witnessed of God that He raised up Christ"; that is another thing. "And if Christ has not been raised... you are yet in your sins... Then they also which are fallen asleep in Christ have perished." Another thing. He musters round this central thing all the great magnitudes of the faith. If this is not true, then everything goes, everything collapses.
The resurrection of the Lord Jesus is the central and supreme thing in the Gospel. Why? Because, as this chapter makes clear before it closes, it represents: "Oh death, where is thy victory? Oh death, where is your sting? The sting of death is sin; and the power of sin is the law: but thanks be to God, which gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ." Sin, death - destroyed, and manifested as destroyed in the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, and we have victory. That is where the resurrection of the Lord Jesus brings us: death, the house of death plundered, robbed of its authority, its power, the keys in His possession: "...and I have the keys of death and of Hades". And the church is no longer subject to the dominion of death either in time or at the end of time. The resurrection church is the thing which is marked above all other things by the power of His resurrection. It embodies all the meaning of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. That is the church which He is building, but it encounters those three things, and its progress towards final consummation is the progress of a battle. A battle against the first thing mentioned, and that second thing, and this third thing. The opposition is the opposition of death, for although in Him death is fully and finally destroyed, for the church the last enemy to be destroyed is death, and she has to come finally and ultimately into that triumph. She comes now into conflict with death; our battle from day to day is with the spiritual power of death.
Why have I said all this? Not to present so much teaching, but because it is of tremendous importance for us to recognise this: that our life depends upon our emancipation from dead things. If it is a dead system which claims to be what it is not, and denies the spiritual reality of the truth, we are better out of it for our very lives. It will kill us if we are not raised entirely above it and made something by resurrection, apart from it. Our life depends upon our having all carnality put away, and all the touch of carnality obstructs the progress of this spiritual building in the power of resurrection. And this, of course, is such a commonplace with us in our knowledge and experience that it hardly needs mentioning: that spiritual development, progress, is fraught with terrific conflict with the power of death. Some of you know that perhaps more than others, but it is true.
If you come into the testimony of Christ Risen as something which has to be exemplified, demonstrated, manifested, in every true member of the Body of Christ, you come into a battle with death itself, and a dual battle, and you will know the meaning of death more than any other person in this world. All who are not in that testimony will have a limited idea of the meaning of death. Get into that testimony and you will know the extraordinary experiences in the physical realm, the workings of death; you will know extraordinary experiences in the mental realm, the operation of death; and in the spiritual realm. You sometimes feel you are right up against the suffocating, blanketing numbness, something which would crush your spirit out and make it impossible for you to go on; and every bit of ministry in that testimony is only brought through by conflict, and when it comes out in life, it is there as a fresh testimony to its power over death. And the Lord is making His church in its individual members a living expression of this great truth: that He has conquered death - not a bit of its doctrine, or its creed, but a bit of its experience.
Whenever some real spiritual bit of work is to be done, some spiritual message is to be given, some bit of divine revelation to be got out, it is not easy. A battle starts, perhaps days or weeks beforehand. The Enemy lays his plans to thwart that, and then at last that is through with the shout of victory, which has in it all the solemnity of a great conflict faced. That is true to experience, but that is what you and I are in, and that is how the Lord is building His church. He is building His church against the religious mind of the day. It has its own ideas of what the church ought to be, and what ought to be taught in the church, and if you come out with what the Lord has revealed as over against that, you encounter the religious mind; you are up against something very strong. The Lord is building His church against that which is represented by: "...this shall never be unto You... Be it far from You, Lord." What is that? Why that is the refusal of the natural mind to accept the cross. The natural mind does not accept the cross gladly or willingly, but fights it, and the building of the church is right up against that.
And then, as though you leave the realm of any kind of concrete expression of opposition and go into the realm of the abstract, which is more real than all the rest, you come right up against naked death itself, the house of death. And I do not want to stay there; that is the conflict side. I want to resolve that into its two sides. There is the cross of the Lord Jesus which stands between all that of which we have spoken, and the church that He builds, and that cross closes a way, a highway. Up to the point of the cross there has been this movement. It has moved everywhere with its purpose, its idea out from Satan through carnal nature, through natural religion, seeking to build this thing. You must remember that the work of Satan is to build a temple in which he is god; to make this world a temple of god in which he sits in the place of God Incarnate, in antichrist. That is the climax of history on one side, and he is moving, and has been moving through the ages, by these means: religion.
Oh, when will you and I have clearly and strongly enough apprehended that religion can be one of the most antagonistic things to the true purpose of God? Religion can be positively opposed. And I do not mean the religion of Islam, or of Buddha, but the so-called Christian religion. Just as Judaism at length became the outstanding opponent of the Christ of God and of God's purpose in Christ, and Judaism was originally constituted by God Himself, so Christianity, originally constituted by God, can become something so estranged from God, and yet remain Christianity in name, that it becomes the most positive force of antagonism to the purpose of God. This is by religion, by man in nature carnally coming in and taking a place, ruling, influencing, governing, manipulating, asserting, reasoning, willing... yes, by all that moving on to have the false temple of God; and by death... to conquer by death, to realize that thing by the power of death.
All that meets a deadlock in the cross of the Lord Jesus. It is like a great barrier set in the way which says: "So far shall you go and no further". The religion of nature, even the Christian religion of man, cannot get past the cross of Christ. The natural man, the carnal man, even in Christian activity cannot get past the cross of Christ. It is arrested there and death is also arrested in the cross of the Lord Jesus. And in that cross where these things meet their arrest, they meet their doom, and in His death He destroys them and they are put away; but that cross represents an end. You who have a mental grasp of the picture which I have drawn must not forget that the cross is an abiding principle which goes on. You and I may be saved, and there may be carnality about us as spiritual men and women, but that does not get past the cross. As the Holy Spirit has His way with us, He will more and more thoroughly demand that these things go where He put them when Christ died. We will never get through this barrier of the cross with one bit of that other creation.
The cross of the Lord Jesus is God's eternal "NO!" to this world, and to fallen man by nature: "NO NEVER! NOT ONE BIT." God's NO! When the Lord Jesus cried in that cross: "My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me", that was the cry of the despair of all that belongs to nature. He, at that moment, had taken upon Him representatively, the whole nature of the creation in Adam. And God turned His face from Him, and His back upon it, and said: "No!" And Christ said: "Why have You forsaken Me?" It was not His Son He forsook as His Son; it was a Representative of creation, and in forsaking Him thus He forsook that old order, and in effect He said: "No never! I will have none of you. I repudiate you". It was the cry of a repudiating on the part of God of something with which He had become bound up by His Son in a representative way. God said to Him, as it were: "NO; finally, utterly, irrevocably: No. This cross ends it all." That is one side.
There is a resurrection, and while the cross is a barrier on the one side, it is an open door on the other side, and the resurrection of the Lord Jesus is God's: "YES!", His great, wonderful, glorious "Yes". God in His terribleness, God in His unchangeableness, God in His unalterableness, God saying with terrific emphasis: "NO!" You come up against that "NO" of God and you cannot move that. No pleading will move that; no argument will move that; no praying will move that. God says: "I have said No." That is the end. You come away and say: "The thing is finished, I can tell that He means that and nothing I like to say or do will alter that; that is the end." It can be despair if you like, for all human reason, thought, ethic, morality, human religion, human work in the Name of God, which is still human work - everything is: "No, not one bit"; it is shut down by God. That is an awful picture; that is stern and terrible.
Move over on to the other side and see another side of God. You meet God now, not with a stern frown of a terrible foreboding, but a smile of triumph, and He is found with the marks of invitation on His face, everything is possible after all and He is saying now: "YES, a thousand times Yes" - but not to that; to this. You and I need to step into God's "Yes". We must recognise we can never have the "Yes" until we have had the "No", but it is a blessed thing to get past that crisis; nothing of the old, not my natural mind, not my natural desires, not my natural activities, nothing of my old creation life now, no longer I, but Christ. And God says "Yes" on that ground: "Everything is possible", and there is a way through. To live on the side of the divine "Yes"! What is the book of the Acts but God's, "Yes! Go on, I am with you." It is good to have God in a relationship like that. God saying: "Yes, go on", and that "Go on", that is resurrection ground. It is prospect; it is possibility. You will say: "Yes, but Lord I am very weak." "Never mind, that is no criterion at all; come along, We will do it." "But I am empty, Lord." "Never mind, let Us go on with it." God is on the "Yes" side when we come on to it. Nature goes out, but all things are possible on resurrection ground. Oh, get on to that ground; the Lord needs us on that ground. It would be easy for any one of us here to say: "Because I am not constituted as I feel I ought to be, I am not made as I think I ought to be made, I never had the natural qualifications for this thing the Lord has called me to. I have this and that handicap, it is no use me entertaining anything." Any of us could take that ground, but that is God's ground of "No". The ground God wants us to take is: "Yes, I have everything against me but that is not the criterion at all. Here is a possibility through faith in the Risen Lord which is bigger than all my impossibilities. Here is something which would represent an entire handicap, but I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me". That is resurrection ground. Oh, to get on to it positively.
You get up in the morning feeling more dead than alive, and you say: "This is my infirmity; I repudiate this and if the Lord has anything today, then I may be nine-tenths dead, but I trust the Lord and mean to have it done". That is resurrection ground. The Lord calls you to do something, and you say: "Look at me, I have nothing in myself to do that; I have never done anything like that in my life." Take this ground: "Lord, You know altogether what I am by nature, but I am not going to allow that to influence the situation. I am going to trust You in the matter of that which You have laid upon me, and by faith I step into all the possibilities of the Risen Life of the Lord Jesus". Move on that ground and God says, "Yes." I know that is true almost every day of my life. The power of His resurrection is a working reality. Over against something in nature which says "No", taking resurrection ground, God comes in and says, "Yes" to the weakest, to the most empty, most helpless. By faith lay hold of the Risen Lord and God says "Yes" every time, for His will. Of course there must be no presumption and trying to use His Risen life for your own ends and glory, but in the will of God, He says "Yes" every time. Yes, all things are possible to them that believe.
Whether you forget all the mass through which we have waded to get to our point, remember the issue is: "I will build My church" and it is a very practical thing in every day life. "My church" is a testimony to the power of resurrection. Every living stone is living in the power of His resurrection and has to be daily a testimony to that power, and it can be, through faith. The Lord help us to repudiate and set aside all that gets in the way of that life and take our ground with Him there, where He builds, and the gates of Hades do not prevail.