I Will Build My Church

By Richard Phillips

If you want to really understand something, one of the best things you can do is study its origin, or beginning. This is true of nations. If you want to understand why America is as it is today, what its institutions are about, how its self-identity formed, then you have to go back and learn about its birth in the Revolutionary War, its struggle as a colony seeking independence, its ideal of equality under God, its pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

He said to them, "But who do you say that I am?" Simon Peter replied,
"You are the Christ, the Son of the living God."
— Matthew 16:15-16

If you want to really understand something, one of the best things you can do is study its origin, or beginning. This is true of nations. If you want to understand why America is as it is today, what its institutions are about, how its self-identity formed, then you have to go back and learn about its birth in the Revolutionary War, its struggle as a colony seeking independence, its ideal of equality under God, its pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness.

The same is true of sports and pastimes. I recently took time to investigate the invention of my favorite sport, football. Football has its roots in the English game of rugby. The great Walter Camp, captain of the Yale University team, introduced rule changes in the 1880’s that transformed the sport to what we know and love today. He introduced the play from scrimmage, the point differential between touchdowns and field goals, set plays, and the eleven-man limit on the field. Some years later, in 1906, when the game had become bogged down in mass brutality, he brought innovation of the forward pass. In all of these Camp was seeking to take the English game and infuse it with the American virtues of speed, daring, imagination and strategy, combined with the British virtues of physical strength and stamina. These are the very things that explain the vital connection between the game of football and the American ethos.

We can perform a similar analysis of cultural phenomena, exploring, for instance the historic connection between theology and beer. Why is it, you may ask, that so much great theology has been produced by drinkers of beer? The answer is found in the origins of beer, in its medieval version. It turns out that in the Middle Ages, the brewing of beer was dominated by monasteries. The monks took a keen interest in beer, mainly because they needed nutritious sustenance for their protracted periods of fasting. The consumption of liquids was permitted during fasts, so the monks specialized in liquid bread. Over the years they perfected its taste, along with their own capacity to imbibe at astounding levels. Perhaps it was in his Augustinian monastery that Martin Luther gained his love of beer. His wife, Katherina von Bora was a noted brewer; there is a famous letter in which Luther, who had been long absent from home and family, wrote to her, "Oh my dear Katie, I miss you so much—and especially your beer!"

The same is true for religions. If you want to understand the heart and soul of the English Reformed churches, you must reckon with the flames lit by the Roman Catholic Queen, Bloody Mary, wherein they received their true birth. If you want to know what lies at the heart of Islam, then you must consider its founder, Mohammed, and how its expansion was carved out by the bloody sword. And, of course, if you want to really lay hold of the heart of the Christian Church—to understand its values and aspirations and guiding principles—you must go back to the New Testament record of the ministry of Jesus Christ.

The Origins of the Christian Church

In a very real way the origins of the church may be traced to the events recorded in Matthew 16:13-20. Chapter 16 exhibits a pivotal turning point in the ministry of our Lord. After His baptism and temptation, Jesus came to Galilee, where He taught of God’s kingdom, demonstrated its reality through His miracles, and gathered His disciples around Himself. Matthew chapters 4 to 16 record this stage of His ministry. The miracle of feeding the multitudes with only a few pieces of bread—the only miracle recorded in all four Gospels—culminates this phase with a dramatic presentation of Jesus as leader of the new Exodus, as the true Passover Lamb, as the Messiah who feeds His pilgrim people with manna from heaven. This is what the Galilean ministry pointed to: the gathering of the church in the wilderness for the Exodus to the Promised Land.

Matthew chapter 16 begins as the Pharisees reject our Lord. By and large, that was the result of Jesus’ Galilean ministry: He was rejected by all but a handful of disciples. Jesus withdrew with the faithful few, but not in defeat. Here is the origin of the Christian church, the twelve disciples, separated from the leaven of unbelief, walking with Jesus through a barren land.

It is noteworthy that our passage, Matthew 16:13-20, begins by telling us where Jesus took His little proto-church. "Jesus came," Matthew records, "into the district of Caesarea Philippi." This was a center of Graeco-Roman culture in Palestine, with a large pagan population. Indeed, it would have been hard to find a place more symbolic of the whole system of the world’s idolatry. The city boasted a famous cave in which was kept an ancient shrine to Baal, but which the Greeks had dedicated to their god Pan. The region is thus known in some ancient literature as Paneas. Archaeologists have informed us that the region was filled with temples to various Greek gods.

Furthermore, the tetrarch Philip, in order to ingratiate himself with Augustus Caesar, had erected a magnificent temple in the city, resplendent in white marble and massive in size, dedicated to the worship of the Roman emperor, renaming the place Caesarea Philippi.

Here in this one center of pagan religion were combined the idolatries of the seductive Orient, of philosophical Greek, and of militant Rome. One writer says, "It is as if most of the rivulets of various ancient religions converged here." It was to this place, having proclaimed His kingdom in Galilee, that Jesus brought his little remnant church.

We are talking about the origin of the Christian church, and we should make some observations at this point. After Jesus had proclaimed His kingdom to Israel and been rejected for it, and after He had gathered to Himself the small band of His church, Jesus now faces them outward toward the world. It is noteworthy that the church, now formed in this fledgling band, does not turn towards the past, inward toward the exclusive world of Judaism, but toward the future—outward toward the Gentile world that Jesus is going to include within the saving realm of His church.

It is also noteworthy, I think, that when Jesus brings his band of disciples to the place where He is going to challenge them with regard to the central matter of their faith, He brings them before the idols of this world. That is the way it always is, that faith must be professed in awareness of and in the presence of the false idols. For to profess that Jesus Christ is Lord is also to reject the idolatry that is offered by the world. Michael Green helpfully observes:

Today, when the world is a global village, and when the multiplicity of faiths is regarded as a fatal objection to the Christian claim of the uniqueness of Jesus, it is easy to forget that the seductions of syncretism in religion were every bit as attractive in the world where Christianity was born, and they were steadily and consistently resisted. Millions died for their quiet conviction that in the world of the relative the Absolute had arrived. Christianity cannot renege on that claim without a total denial of her Lord. The first things Jesus insists upon, at the very moment of the church’s origination, is the claim that He alone is Lord.

A Great Profession

With that introduction we may proceed into the body of this account, where we survey the origins of the Christian Church in four points: a great profession, a great promise, a great prophecy, and a great principle.
First is the great profession prompted by Jesus’ great question. Matthew tells us: "When Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He asked his disciples, ‘Who do people say that the Son of Man is?’" (v. 13). That was the issue then, just as it remains the issue today. What matters at the center of our belief is not what we believe about various philosophical or theological perspectives. It always comes back to the person of Jesus Christ. It is on Him that the church rests, and it is on the answer to this question that everything always hinges.

Naturally, there were a number of points of view. "They said, ‘Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.’" This is just as it is today. Different people have differing views about what we should make of Jesus. But Jesus honed in His attack, demanding, "But who do you say that I am?" (vv. 14-15). It is right to remember that it always comes down to the individual standing before Jesus, who demands a personal reckoning with who and what He is.

If you were to put your finger on the single verse that forms the very center of Matthew’s Gospel, or of any of the three Synoptic Gospels—the fulcrum on which this great gospel record turns—that verse would have to be Matthew 16:16. It is a verse all of us should know. Prior to this, Jesus has been calling people to Himself with the aim of founding his church. As soon as it happens, Jesus rejoices because what happens in this verse both begins the church and ensures its ultimate triumph. From this verse forward, Jesus’ public ministry is over.

Matthew 16 records the origin of the Christian Church; its founding takes place in this interaction between Jesus and the disciples and in the teaching that follows and then in the transfiguration when He reveals His glory to the three. After these events, from Matthew 16:13—17:13, Jesus gathers up His little church and makes a bee-line for the cross. Luke records the transition in his version, which comes in his chapter 9. Immediately after this sequence, Luke tells us, "He set his face to go to Jerusalem." What happens in this encounter—centered on Matthew 16:16—serves as the dividing line between Jesus’ public ministry of calling sinners to Himself and the private ministry of training the disciples, even as He began the journey to Jerusalem and the cross.

What, then, happened in this great verse, Matthew 16:16? Did some great political leader announce a new program of peace and prosperity? Was a great battle fought on some hardened plain? Did a scientist make a startling discovery? No, it was nothing like those things, the kinds of things that gain the attention of the world. What happened in that verse is the thing that matters most in the world even when it happens today, the thing that has the greatest eternal significance and is of greatest concern to God: A simple man who had been called to Jesus Christ made profession of faith in Jesus’ name.

"Who do you say that I am?" Jesus demanded. "Simon Peter replied, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’" That is what we call "the Great Confession." It is great both because of the occasion; it is the first formal profession of faith that is accepted as such by our Lord. It is also great because of its content; in this sense it is just as great today when every sinner professes these things about Jesus.

Peter’s great profession consists of two elements. On the one hand it deals with His office, that is, with His work. He calls Jesus "the Christ," that is, "the Messiah." This comes from the Hebrew verb that means "to anoint." The Messiah is "the Anointed One." Michael Green summarizes:

In Judaism it meant the one who would come and fulfill the hopes of the nation. Traditionally, three sorts of people had been anointed with oil: prophets, priests and kings. And Jesus in fact did fulfill the expectations of all those three roles. Like the priest (only perfectly) He put people in touch with God. Like the prophet (only perfectly) He showed people what God was like. And like the king (only perfectly) He exercised God’s rule over God’s people while Himself being uniquely the Servant of the Lord.

Peter professes his faith that Jesus is the One anticipated by the whole Old Testament to bring the full-orbed salvation that was the hope of Israel. Jesus is the Christ: prophet, priest, and king.

The second part of Peter’s great profession deals with the person of Christ. "You are the Son of the living God," he said. This is what the Bible also calls us to believe about Jesus Christ, the profession on which the church is built. It is not enough to consider Jesus a sublime guru or even the most exemplary of all men. Matthew’s Gospel records the voice of God, heard audibly from heaven, on two occasions—Jesus’ baptism, that inaugurated His public ministry, and Jesus’ transfiguration, which concluded it at the founding of the church—saying just this: "This is my beloved Son" (Mt. 3:17; 17:5). We must therefore receive Him in this way, not just following Him as the best of men but worshiping Him as the only true God. We must profess Him the way doubting Thomas did, "My Lord and my God!" (Jn. 20:28).

This is the great profession, which serves as the ground upon which each of us must be saved and upon which Jesus builds His church. Jesus is the Christ–the Messiah and Savior– and He is the Son of God. The apostle John later wrote his entire Gospel with the aim of bringing us to these two vital points of faith. He writes at the end, in John 20:31, "These things are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name."

We cannot place too much emphasis on the content of this profession or on its centrality to the Christian faith. We should notice, then, the very significant comment Jesus made immediately upon receiving it. He said, "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven" (v. 17).

It is essential that we not fail to take in this point. The great profession stands at the center of a saving relationship to Christ. What is it, then, that produces this profession of faith? Jesus says that it comes not by flesh and blood but by revelation from God. By "flesh and blood," Jesus refers to all the avenues of human exploration and attainment. Peter did not come by this faith through scholarship nor by philosophical inquiry. It did not spring forth from conventional wisdom or his common sense appreciation of things picked up as a fisherman. It was not something he worked out on his own even through his extensive personal experience with Jesus and his eye-witness participation in the great miracles. His great profession did not come by flesh and blood, "but by my Father who is in heaven," Jesus said. The key word here is revelation. Peter’s faith arose from the revelation of God the Father. I do not think that Jesus meant Peter had some sudden or hidden illumination directly from God, but rather that this revelation came from Jesus himself, who is the living Word. That is where the first profession of faith came from, and that is where it comes from still—God’s revelation through His Word, centered on Jesus Christ.

If that is true, and if the origination of the church tells us about how the church continues to be built today, then this tells us something of great significance. If we want people to join in Peter’s great profession and to thus be admitted by Jesus into the saving company of His people, then we must not rely upon flesh and blood devices. We must not be tempted by the things that appeal to men and women today, and I especially think of the entertainment that so dominates our secular culture and sadly that of the church as well. We may make the most effective appeals to flesh and blood, to the things that are persuasive and enticing to the fleshly nature of mankind. But Jesus here assures us that by those means we will never bring about the saving faith first professed by Simon Peter. Instead, we must rely upon the one means God has provided, His Word. As we teach and proclaim and witness God’s Word, the Father in heaven reveals the truth about Jesus to the minds and hearts of men and brings them to true and saving faith.

A Great Promise

So great was the profession made by Simon Peter, and so important was it to our Lord, that Jesus responded to a great promise. He said, "I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church" (v. 18).

This is a promise that has been co-opted by the Roman Catholic Church to argue that Jesus was promising its exclusivity as His church upon the earth. Let me briefly explain why we can be absolutely sure that this is not what Jesus intended. First, even if we agree that Jesus is speaking of Peter himself as "the rock" on which He will build His church—and there is a sense in which we are bound to say that He is—this does not connect with the idea of papal supremacy.

Rome teaches that since Peter was the first Bishop of Rome and since Jesus promised to build His church on Peter, then the Roman Catholic Church is the one true church and the succeeding Bishops of Rome, the popes, maintain his supreme standing in the church. But there are gaping holes in this argument. If we were to point to a specific church Peter founded it would be the one in Jerusalem, not to mention the one in Antioch, both of which went on to become patriarchal seats in the early church. One church we can be sure Peter did not found is the one in Rome. The Book of Acts tells us that there were men from Rome who came to faith on that first Pentecost (Acts 2:10); undoubtedly, these men returned home and began the church in that great city. Any relationship Rome might have to Peter as to the founding of its church, namely, that Peter preached the Pentecost sermon, is the same relationship every other church had to Peter. Later on, when Paul wrote his great letter to the Romans, neither he nor Peter had yet been there, yet there was a thriving church in the place. If Peter ended up in Rome and died there, as tradition strongly insists, that does not place any distinctive stamp of his relationship to the Roman church in contrast with any of the others.

Furthermore, there is by definition no such thing as apostolic succession. Paul says, in Ephesians 2:20, that the apostles labored to build the foundation of the church. This "house-model" for the historical building of the church is very insightful. Once a foundation is laid you do not go on building it; instead you build the house on it. Similarly, the apostles labored for the once-for-all founding of the church, and, when that was done, their office was discontinued. Acts 1:22 makes clear that one of the requirements for being an apostle is the personal eyewitness of the risen Lord Jesus Christ; by biblical definition, then, no one today or at any time since that initial age of the church is able to fulfill the requirements of being an apostle.

With the Roman falsehood cleared away we may now look seriously at what Jesus said. His word-play, "You are Peter," which in Greek is petros, and "on this Rock"—the Greek word petra,—"I will build my church." It is useless to deny that in some sense our Lord is speaking about Peter personally. In what sense He speaks becomes clear. First, Jesus is speaking of Peter inasmuch as he is professing saving faith in Jesus Christ. "The rock is not just Peter, but Peter in his confessional capacity. The point is this: Jesus had found in Peter a real believer, and on that foundation He could build His church." This becomes all too clear when Jesus goes on to speak of His impending crucifixion. Peter was horrified by such a thought; his vision of Christ’s church had nothing to do with the cross (in this, we may consider him the first modern Evangelical!). What then happened? Did Jesus say, "Well, okay, since after all you are Peter and I have just said that your interpretation of my Word is going to have to be authoritative"? Verse 23 tells us quite the opposite. Jesus exclaimed to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me." Peter is a solid rock for Jesus’ building of the church only as He Himself stands fast upon the great profession of faith.

Secondly, Peter is singled out here as the representative and will lead the apostles as a group, including their authoritative testimony that is set down in the New Testament. In other words, Jesus is asserting here the apostolicity of the church. Peter is the one who would lead them in the weeks after Jesus’ death and resurrection; it is he who would preach that great founding sermon on the first Pentecost.

Jesus said to Peter, in verse 19, "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven." It is on this basis that the Roman Catholics speak of Peter as the doorman at the gates of heaven, and also on which the pope presumes to sell indulgences granting forgiveness of sins. But we should observe that just two chapters later, in Matthew 18:18, Jesus grants this authority to the apostles as a whole. Indeed, we should see this authority passed down to the teaching and ruling office of the church even today in the exercise of church discipline. To be sure, Peter was later a man to be reckoned with in the church, as Ananias and Sapphira discovered. But the same could be said of all the apostles, just as it should be said of faithful ministers in the church today.

Jesus speaks, then, of Peter as a man who makes true profession of faith in Him as Christ and Son of God, and He also sees in Peter the apostolic office in the church that He will head. Upon this solid rock—all of it resting itself upon the faith revealed in His Word by Jesus’ Father in heaven—Jesus makes the great promise, "I will build my church." This should not be taken as a mere statement of intent; rather, it is a divine promise. On the great profession of faith—as originally spoken by Peter and as spoken by all true believers today—Jesus will build His church. He does not assign this promise to the church growth programs that seek to build on things other than the great profession. But He speaks to every struggling pastor, trying to teach unwilling people in difficult settings, and to every young Christian filled with zeal and seeking to make a difference for Christ with his life, and to every body of elders trying to redirect their church body in a biblical way—that if only we will teach God’s Word, by which God reveals to sinful men and women the great profession of faith in His Son, Jesus Christ—to these and to us here tonight, Jesus promises that He will build His church.

He does not promise to build great financial enterprises. He does not promise to make the minister famous or popular. He does not promise media empires or vast buildings. But what He does promise is to build His church, the true people of God called out from the world to follow Jesus Christ and find their salvation in Him.

A Great Prophecy

Jesus added to this great promise an equally great prophecy. He said, "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (v. 18).

We tend to think of this in a defensive manner, that no matter what attacks the devil unleashes on the church, the church will always prevail. That, of course, is true. I think, in this regard, of the great intellectual assaults that have been made against the Christian faith over the past several centuries. No one has probably better represented this attack than the French atheist Voltaire, whose writings were so popular during the Enlightenment. He wrote that in fifty years from his time no one would remember Christianity. "In twenty years," he boasted, "Christianity will be no more. My single hand shall destroy the edifice it took twelve apostles to rear." But twenty years passed and Christianity remained. Voltaire, however, died, and even in death he remembered Christianity. The doctor who attended him records that his last words were these: "I am abandoned by God and man! I will give you half of what I am worth if you will give me six months’ life. Then I shall go to hell; and you will go with me. O Christ! O Jesus Christ!" Fifty years came after Voltaire’s famous boast, and the house from which he assaulted Christ’s church with his pen was by then headquarters of the Geneva Bible Society, from which the church was mass-producing and disseminating Bibles.

Such it has always been with hell’s assault on the church by means of the pen. What about the sword? I was greatly inspired by a recent account of the suffering church in the Sudan. One of the war-torn villages there is Chali. The Uduk tribe was converted to Christianity from this missionary station in Chali. In 1996 Chali was attacked by forces of the Islamic national government. The church was blown apart, Bibles were gleefully torn up, the pages used to roll cigarettes. Most of the men were killed immediately, some crucified, while the women were taken and abused. All of this was because of their faith in Christ. Does that raise a question as to Christ’s prophecy about what will happen when the church is faced with the sword? The Uduks themselves have not doubted the word of their Lord. When rebels recaptured Chali a couple of years ago the Christians returned and the first thing they did was rebuild their church. The gates of hell did not prevail against it. There they still gather daily to pray and worship God. Of God’s sufficiency for them, their pastor, Simon Mamud, remarked, "We have nothing, but we have everything."

Jesus prophesied that His church will stand up against the devil and against Hades. And yet we really should understand this prophecy not merely in the negative but also in the positive. When Jesus speaks of the "gates of hell" it is clear that He is talking about His church on the offensive, breaking down the strongholds of the devil. Is this not a truth that is demonstrated in the whole Bible? Moses showed up in Egypt with only a staff, but by the power of God he broke the strength and will of Pharaoh. Israel arrived in laughable weakness before the high walls of Jericho, but through their obedience to God and by His might those walls came crashing down. So it was for David in his great triumph over the giant Goliath, and for Hezekiah when he prayed and the angel of the Lord struck down tens of thousands in the Assyrian camp, and for Esther when her prayers were answered and her courage bore fruit as wicked Haman swung from the gibbet he had made for faithful Mordecai.

And so it was when Jesus Christ took up the cross and embraced to His own breast the very death our sins deserved. There, Satan bruised His heel, as God put it in the promise that foretold the great conflict that is told all through the Bible. But Jesus crushed His head by conquering death through His unconquerable life, by overthrowing Satan’s rule like a strong man who breaks into a house to set the captives free, by dying in the place of sinners so that we might be freed forever from the guilt of sin and delivered from its power by the working of the Holy Spirit Jesus sends into our lives. "On this rock," Jesus cried, standing before the assembled gods of this present evil age, speaking of the faith God reveals to his own people as represented and begun by Peter in his great profession, "I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." That is a prophecy, and it is found to be true whenever Christian people and churches take their stand upon God’s Word so that others come to faith and the church is thereby built up and the kingdom of God advances victoriously against the broken ranks of the devil.

A Great Principle

That leads me to my fourth and last point, which is the great principle that Jesus insists upon as inseparable from everything that has happened and has been said in this pivotal encounter. This great principle is presented to us immediately following our passage. Matthew writes, "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 on the third day be raised" (Mt. 16:21-22). The great principle Jesus set forth is that the great profession, and the great promise, and the great prophecy are all inseparably linked to His own death on the cross. Jesus meant not merely that the cross was itself the event that made all this possible,—though that certainly is true—but that the cross is the way and the pattern for everything He had said and promised would come to pass

There was an event that happened right after the Transfiguration and that is part of this whole episode. Jesus came down from the mount with the three closest disciples who had just seen Him in His glory. Back down in the valley they found a demon-possessed boy. The disciples who were left there were unable to cast out the demon so Jesus did it when He arrived. Luke’s Gospel adds a detail that is very important. A crowd of people saw what had happened and they excitedly marveled at what Jesus had done. But our Lord turned to His disciples, to that fledgling church, and said, "Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is about to be delivered into the hands of men" (Lk. 9:44).

Jesus was obviously contrasting the applause of the world with the way of the cross, which is the way that leads to the fulfillment of His goals and those of the church. Is it the way of worldly power and glory—the way the crowd wants Him to go—or is it the way of death and weakness and humiliation? This is what Martin Luther meant when he contrasted the theology of the cross with the theology of glory. It is what Paul meant when he declared in Philippians 3 that he had cast off as dung all his claims of worldly merit and success—his circumcision and lineage and morality and religiosity and achievements. Instead he said, "I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead" (Phil. 3:10-11).

This is the principle that must govern Christ’s church, namely, that His power is the resurrection power that comes from God to all who enter into the death of Jesus’ cross. The cross must be our profession, as we trust in the crucified Son of God and Messiah. The cross defines our discipleship; no sooner had Jesus promised to build His church than He made that connection crystal clear. See this in Matthew 16:24, "If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me." The cross is the weapon by which the church invincibly advances, for by it sin is put away, and with it death and condemnation. This is what Paul would so ferociously insist upon in that great era when Christ began to build His church throughout the ancient world. People wanted a message different from the one Paul preached, but he insisted, "Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ and Him crucified" (1 Cor. 1:22). To the Galatians, who like so many today wanted to extend the church on the basis of worldly wisdom and achievement, Paul asserted, "Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world" (Gal. 6:14). The cross is the great principle by which we are held fast to the great profession, to the great promise of our Lord and to his prophecy of triumph for the church.

Be of Good Cheer, Master Ridley

I said at the beginning that we really learn about something by going back to its origination. And one example I gave was that of the English Protestant tradition, the lineage in which we are joined as we gather here tonight. Wherever each of us may come from tonight, we are gathered as part of churches that found a distinct starting place in the great English Reformation of the 16th century. What went on then therefore says quite a lot about what we are gathered here for now.

Last year I bought a copy of J.C. Ryle’s great book, Light from Old Times, which chronicles the experience of the Marian martyrs, and I have to confess that since then I have been somewhat enthralled by the events and characters of that great reformation, and I want to conclude by reflecting on what I think is the great lesson taught by that generation in the church.

The English Reformation drew its impetus from the reforming cry of John Wyclyffe, and then from the translation of the Bible into English by William Tyndale, and also from the writings of Martin Luther, which began to cross over the English Channel. But the actual beginning arose from Henry VIII’s desire to divorce his wife, the childless Catherine of Aragon. (From the start, English Protestantism has been cramped by its fascination with politics!) In order to achieve his desire, Henry had to break free from the pope, creating the Church of England.

The crisis of reformation gained steam as Henry began to approach the time of his death. He had one son, a sickly infant named Edward, and this son would succeed to the throne. That set off savage maneuvering between the Catholic and Protestant parties at court. Protestants, such as Henry’s sixth and last wife, Catherine Parr, played their hands carefully to avoid offending Henry’s personal piety, which remained essentially Roman Catholic. Meanwhile, Catholics like the Duke of Norfolk and his bishop, Stephen Gardiner, sought desperately to accuse and intimidate the Protestants into submission. The great prize was the right to be guardian and protector of the infant Edward, for whoever gained this position would be de facto ruler of England. Toward this end, every device was employed on both sides. Finally, before his death Henry granted the guardianship of young Edward to the Duke of Somerset, who was his grandfather through Henry’s fourth wife, Jane Seymour, and who thus had the natural right.

Henry died, and the power of state passed into Protestant hands. Protestant history looks back on the six-year reign of Edward VI as analogous to that of young Josiah in Judah. By the power of the sword, Catholicism with all its superstitions and rituals and blasphemies was swept from the land. The illiterate priests were placed under the authority of the Protestant Archbishop Cranmer and his firebrand bishops—men like Hooper and Latimer and Bradford. The destruction of the monasteries, begun under Henry, was completed, with their vast wealth and land incidentally passed on to Protestant lords. By these means reformation was pressed with great thoroughness all throughout the land of England.

One would think that this represented a fulfillment of Christ’s promise to build his church and to tear down the gates of hell. Certainly, the Protestants of that day looked on the events as an expression of providential favor. But something happened that overturned the whole scenario. Edward became ill and it became clear that he soon would die. Next in succession was Princess Mary, Henry’s first child, the daughter of the Spanish Queen Catherine and a fanatical Roman Catholic. To avert the return of papacy to the land, the Duke of Northumberland, who replaced Somerset as protector and overlord, arranged for Edward to assign the succession to his Protestant cousin and a granddaughter of Henry VIII, Lady Jane Grey. With great ceremony the lords bent the knee before this 16-year old girl, and the crown was placed upon her head to make the Reformation safe in England.

But something unexpected happened. Attempts to lay hands on Princess Mary failed, and as the Protestant Lords met in the Star Chamber, she began moving on London to claim her throne. She was hailed everywhere as queen. A popular uprising gained steam around a woman who was herself anything but popular. By the time Mary arrived in London, her claims were universally supported; nine days into her rule, Lady Jane fell to her knees begging her elder cousin’s forgiveness.

Mary ascended the throne, the Catholic bishops came back, the mass was restored and the Reformation was overthrown. Soon there was a price to be paid by those who chose the worldly path of glory, as the new queen began to earn the name by which she is known in history, Bloody Mary.

Given all that, you might ask how the Protestant faith prevailed in England, spreading to these shores and throughout the world? It did not happen because of the political maneuvering of the lords, nor because of the political preaching in Protestant pulpits, nor because of the presumptions of those who crowned Lady Jane. All those things, it turned out, hindered the Reformation.

I think it is fair to say that the English Reformation first began to take a real hold in a small cell in the Tower of London, where 16-year old Lady Jane Grey awaited her execution. The Duke of Northumberland, the Protestant king-maker who had put the crown on her head, had already reverted to Catholicism. His famous explanation preserves his reputation for posterity: "Better to be a living dog," he said, "than a dead lion." There sat Lady Jane, used and abandoned, isolated and despised, awaiting Bloody Mary’s wrath. Wanting to make a trophy of her, and perhaps with a genuine concern for her soul, Mary sent her priest confessor, Feckenham, to bring about Lady Jane’s spiritual capitulation. When Feckenham entered, it was obvious from her answers to his questions that her life was at stake.

Lady Jane Grey is not only an interesting historical figure, but she was a great Christian. She read the Greek Bible fluently; as a young girl she had exchanged theological letters with Continental Reformers like Bullinger, and she had agreed to assume the crown only because of her commitment to Christ. She was the kind of woman the church so greatly needs today, and she is one of my heroes.

The famous interview was recorded word-for-word. First, Feckenham tried to get her to deny salvation by faith alone, arguing the Catholic position that works are necessary in order to be saved. Lady Jane replied, "I deny that, and I affirm that faith only saveth: we may not say that [works] profit to our salvation; for when we have done all, we are unprofitable servants, and faith only in Christ’s blood saves us." Next, he tried to make her profess transubstantiation, the doctrine that says we eat the physical body of Christ in the sacrament, recalling Jesus’ statement "Take, eat, this is my body." Jane replied, "I grant He saith so; and so He saith, I am the vine, I am the door; but he is never the more for that a door or a vine: God forbid that I should say that I eat the very natural body and blood of Christ; for then either I should pluck away my redemption, or else there were two bodies or two Christs, or twelve bodies, when His disciples did eat his body, and it suffered not till the next day." Feckenham insisted that she must accept the pope’s interpretation, but she responded, "No, I ground my faith upon God’s word, and not upon the church; for if the church be a good church, the faith of the church must be tried by God’s word, and not God’s word by the church: And I say, that it is an evil church, and not the spouse of Christ, but the spouse of the devil, that alters the Lord’s supper: Shall I believe this church? God forbid!"

Disappointed, the priest took his leave, saying he was sorry since he was sure they would never meet again. The teenage princess replied, "True it is that we shall never meet again, except God turn your heart; for I am assured, unless you repent, and turn to God, you are in an evil case; and I pray God, in the bowels of His mercy, to send you His Holy Spirit to open the eyes of your heart."

It was one thing for mighty and rich lords wielding the sword to remove the Catholic altars, and quite another for a young Christian woman to look into her captor’s eyes and choose to obey Christ unto death rather than take the cursed mass. It was one thing to have the prayer book forced upon you, and another to hear Lady Jane Grey calmly explain sola scriptura and sola fide under the shadow of the headsman’s axe.

Jane was but the first of many who would get the chance to prove their convictions under the pain of death. Not long after her beheading, two of the leading Protestant preachers, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley, were brought out to the stake to burn for their faith. The people gathered round to see how stalwart these leaders would be now that they no longer had the power of the state backing up their sermons. Ridley was brought out first and when he reached the stake he lifted up his face and hands toward heaven. Seeing Latimer, who now arrived, Ridley embraced and kissed him, saying, "Be of good cheer, brother, for God will either assuage the fury of the flames, or else strengthen us to abide it." Ridley then knelt by his stake, kissed it and prayed, while Latimer knelt also praying to God. After they were haranged regarding the doctrine of transubstantiation, for the rejection of which they were to be burned, they were chained tightly to their stake. When the flames were kindled at Ridley’s feet, Latimer spoke the words that are justly famous: "Be of good cheer, Brother Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God’s grace, in England, as I trust never shall be put out." Ridley then prayed, "Heavenly Father, I give Thee most hearty thanks that Thou has called me to a profession of Thee even unto death. I beseech Thee, Lord God, have mercy on this realm of England, and deliver the same from all her enemies." Then, crying out for God to receive their spirits, the two men of God were consumed by the flames before the assembled crowd.

That is just a small sample of the courageous, joyous, biblical clear testimony of scores of Protestant leaders. What they unsuccessfully tried to press upon England in their days of power, they permanently emblazed in the peoples’ hearts in their days of martyrdom.

Now here is my point, the point Jesus would not allow Peter or the others to turn aside. If we want to be a church with the power of God, then we must not rely upon the power of men—all the more when it is available for our use. "Some trust in chariots and some in horses," says the psalmist, "but we trust the name of the Lord our God" (Ps. 20:7). It is not by raising money, or erecting crystal cathedrals, or accumulating political or media power that Christ’s church finds its power. "I want to know Christ," Paul said, "and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in His sufferings, become like Him in His death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection from the dead."

It is when Christian men and women take their stand on God’s Word before the watching world, living in holiness and ready to suffer for the sake of our Lord that our church today will have the power of God that is able to cast down strongholds and crash open the gates of hell. It is when we take seriously the cross of Jesus Christ and its claims upon our lives that the world will stand up and take notice. It is when our message is not the easy, breezy self-centered spirituality so common today, but Christ crucified and a life of bearing our cross with Him as the path to eternal life—it is then the light of the open tomb will flood our church with the power of God, that Christ will build His church in our midst and cast down even the gates of hell, all to the praise of his glorious grace.