QUESTIONS TO THE CHURCH (Part 7: What Does Matthew 16:18 Really Mean?)

I was asked a question not too long ago by an individual that had a background in Greek studies, and he had a question about Matthew 16:18. I have used Matthew 16:18 to teach that Christ made a promise to His apostles that the church would always exist, and there would never be a time in history when the church would not exist until Christ returns to deliver the kingdom (1 Cor. 15:23-24). The person stated, “You use Matthew 16:18 and said it implied a promise of the protection of Christ for the church. I have believed that, but found I was wrong. The gates of hell, of course, is death. The antecedent of ‘it’ is Christ’s building of the church.” This individual believed that the promise in Matthew 16:18 by Christ to the disciples was not that the church would always exist so long as the world existed, but the promise to the disciples was that Christ would build the church and nothing, not even Satan, could stop Him. – The implication of this being that the first century church does have to exist today in its original form.

The churches of Christ teach that Christ’s church exists today and will always exist in the world. Church history traces much of the denominational world and Christian churches from the Western culture; however, these churches exist as the product of splintering opinions and men wanting to run the church themselves separate from the authority of Christ (2 Tim. 4:3,4). Christian scholars call the church started by Christ in the first century “the Great Church,” likewise saying that the Lord’s church fragmented over time into the modern denominations (Monsignor David Bohr, Archbishop Timothy M. Dolan, The Diocesan Priest: Consecrated and Sent. Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2009. p. 42). Many believe the original Great Church no longer exists in its original doctrine from the first century (Pocket History of Theology by Roger E. Olson and Adam C. English; Christ in Christian Tradition by Aloys Grillmeier, Theresia Hainthaler and Pauline Allen; Christian Community in History Volume 1 by Roger D. Haight).

Secular church historians say that the Churches of Christ stem from the Second Great Awakening (As stated on Wikipedia), but the church itself teaches that they are the church of the first century that has existed since the day of Pentecost, the original Great Church established by Christ maintaining His original doctrine, existing in the shadows of history through the centuries in different countries, languages, and cultures, but never dissolving. Tracking the churches of Christ would be difficult because the name of the church changed throughout history (although always a biblical name), but the doctrine has always stayed the same (Heb. 13:8; Rom. 16:16,17), so the church would need to be traced through its teachings not by its name, implying the doctrine of Christ from the first church has been maintained.  

The Churches of Christ use Matthew 16:18 (along with other verses) to prove Christ prophesied that His church would never be dissolved but always remain intact until His return. Matthew 16:18 reads, “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (KJV). Christ clearly promises that He would build His church, but does the “it” in the final phrase refer to the church or the building of the church? Does Christ mean that the gates of hell will not prevail against the church or the building of the church?

When readers examine the phrase in question, the word translated “hell” in the King James Version is the Greek word “hadēs,” [hah’-dace]which is transliterated “hades” in the American Standard Version (1901). This Greek word is translated “hades” in nearly all versions, except the King James, and depending on the usage the word can mean the nether world, realm of the dead or in later usage has been used to mean the grave, death, the domain of Satan (Thayer). From the context of the verse, it is likely that Christ was using the term to mean the power or domain of Satan, which includes death (Heb. 2:15). So, from this word only, it could be that Jesus was saying, “Death shall not prevent the building of my church.”

However, when dutiful readers examine the construction of the rest of the sentence, they find this translation not possible. First, the word “prevail” does not mean “prevent” or “stop;” it means to triumph, overcome, conqueror (Thayer). Second, the pronoun “it” cannot have the action of building the church for its antecedent. The Greek is very precise in pronoun gender, and the word Jesus uses is feminine, “autos” [ow-tos’]. Thus, the antecedent must be feminine according to Greek rules of grammar, and the only word Jesus uses in the sentence that is feminine is the Greek word, “ekklēsia” [ek-klay-see’-ah] – which means “church.” Had Jesus meant to refer to the building of the church, He would have used the pronoun “autou” rather than “autos.” Therefore, the “it” in the passage is “the church.” The promise of Jesus in the Matthew 16:18 is that He would build His church, and Satan will never be able to overcome His church (Eph. 5:27). It is a very comforting thought to know the church will never be destroyed (Rom. 8:33-39).

Christ never sanctions an official name for His organization but rather uses many terms by which to identify His followers (Acts 11:26; Eph. 1:22,23; Rom. 1:7; 1 Peter 2:5,9). Nevertheless, Christ demands that the doctrine remain the same (Rom. 16:17; Rev. 22:18,19; 1 Cor. 4:6). If one examines the history of a particular denomination and finds that their doctrine evolves and changes with each new generation, then this is not the Great Church, but rather a fracture from the original church caused by man. There exists only one church that Christ established that would maintain and never change the doctrine, the church who solely follows the Law of Christ of the New Testament, the church identified by name in the Scriptures, the church still in existence today teaching the same salvation as it did in the first century, “the churches of Christ” (Rom. 16:16).  

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