“Upon This Rock” Star?

It seems as if periodically that some celebrity pastor falls from grace and the status of their church becomes suspect thereafter. The most recent such pastor is James MacDonald. The fault in such ideas of church is that they are tied to the identity of one particular person, often a man and sometimes a woman. These pastors peddle the ideals of Christ from their pulpits while living questionably off the stage: Mark Driscoll, Jimmy Swaggart, and Jim Bakker all come to mind—each of whom “earned” exorbitant salaries beyond what any servant of Christ should reasonably expect.

Anytime a church is built upon a faulty human, bad things are sure to follow. Humans use their ingenuity and marketing skills thinking that they have to make the Gospel appealing to humans while it is we humans who need to alter our tastes to comprehend and take hold of the divine. Concerts, smoke, lighting, coffee bars are all part of the modern idea of making church appealing. When do we begin to ask, “Is this what God wants?” Upon what rock did Christ intend to build His  church? Was it a rockstar pastor? What was it? Who was it? Peter?

As Christianity spread, bishops arose in cities who served between the bishops and presbyters (elders) of rural congregations. Among city-bishops arose men named metropolitans who superintended capital cities and provinces. As the metropolitans arose, those churches that had close ties to an apostle were given higher esteem because they were supposed to bear the purest form of apostolic tradition. The bishops of these capital cities and provinces received the honorary title of “Patriarch,” and at the Council of Nicaea (AD 325) this form of ecclesiastical government is assumed to have already been in operation.

The most prominent of congregations thought to hold the purest form of apostolic tradition and teaching were Rome, Antioch, and Alexandria. Later added to the list were Constantinople and Jerusalem. Constantine moved the head of his rule from Rome to modern-day Istanbul, Turkey in AD 330. He named the city after himself (Constantinople), and the world recognized it as the head of the Roman rule and it was dubbed the “New Rome.” However, the church in Old Rome did not accept this distinction because of the empire’s relocation. One church believed they still had the prominence, and the relocated church thought that because it followed the emperor, it had the preeminence.

Centuries earlier in refuting Gnosticism, Irenaeus (AD 180) had pointed out the succession of bishops to establish sound doctrine in the church. The Gnostics did not have such a historical claim of apostolic succession, but they had their list of sequence that Irenaeus refuted with his own.

The blessed apostles [Peter and Paul], then, having founded and built up the Church, committed into the hands of Linus the office of the episcopate. Of this Linus, Paul makes mention in the Epistles to Timothy. To him succeeded Anacletus; and after him, in the third place from the apostles, Clement was allotted the bishopric … To this Clement there succeeded Evaristus. Alexander followed Evaristus; then, sixth from the apostles, Sixtus was appointed; after him, Telephorus, who was gloriously martyred; then Hyginus; after him, Pius; then after him, Anicetus. Sorer having succeeded Anicetus, Eleutherius does now, in the twelfth place from the apostles, hold the inheritance of the episcopate. In this order, and by this succession, the ecclesiastical tradition from the apostles, and the preaching of the truth, have come down to us. And this is most abundant proof that there is one and the same vivifying faith, which has been preserved in the Church from the apostles until now, and handed down in truth. (Against Heresies 3.3.3. [AD 180])

Irenaeus also pointed out in the previous verse that Peter and Paul established the church and handed over the episcopate (bishopric)—not Peter only as the claim has been. Since Peter and Paul were at Rome for their execution and since many remaining Christians had communed with these esteemed apostles, the church (universal) assumed that a purer apostolic tradition lay in the Roman church. This gave way to Rome’s exaltation before the church.

With this list of succession was added Matthew 16:18, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” This passage was taught as having spoken of Peter’s preeminence over the church. However, church historian Henry Chadwick wrote,

[This text] cannot be seen to have played any part in the story of Roman leadership and authority before the middle of the third century when the passionate disagreement between Cyprian of Carthage and Stephen of Rome about baptism apparently led Stephen to invoke the text as part of his defence against Cyprian. But it was not until Damascus in 382 that this Petrine text seriously began to become important as providing a theological and scriptural foundation on which claims to primacy were based.¹

Peter, therefore, cannot be the “rock” upon which the church is built, in my opinion.

Two other probable interpretations of the rock upon which the church is built are: 1) the confession itself (Chrysostom, Calvin) or 2) Jesus Himself (Origen, Augustine, Luther). Confession is an integral part of our faith (cf. Acts 2:21; Rom. 10:9–13). However, having a high Christology as I do, I exalt Christ and His person as the rock upon which the church is built, and the confession of such being paramount to the actual building of the church. To posit that it is either/or in this case presents a false dichotomy. I would see it as both/and with favor toward the person of Christ over confession if I were forced to choose.

To Israel, they were hewn from the rock of Abraham (Isaiah 51:1–2)—a notion that a rock pointed more so to a person than a confession. However, the assembly that Christ promised to built would derive from Him (Eph. 2:19–22; cf. Isaiah 28:16; Rom. 9:32–33; 1 Cor. 3:9–11)—to believers as the rock of our foundation, but to unbelievers, a stone of stumbling.² Connected to Christ’s Messiahship is His death and resurrection (Matt. 16:21), and when the first sermon of the church was preached, Jesus was proclaimed to have died and been raised from the dead (Acts 2:36)—a fact which led to the pierced hearts on Pentecost, and ultimately a reality that led to the building of His assembly.

When we consider that the rock upon which the church is built happens to be Jesus, this ought to define our identity. A lot of “newer” churches define their identity based on what they do for people as churchgoers. We all ought to have our identity revolve around the death and resurrection of Jesus because this is the rock upon which His church was built and shall continue to be built. All other options are cheap imitations borrowing a scheme from Him to promote their own wishes. I leave you with the following:

The early church didn’t need the energetic music, great videos, attractive leaders, or elaborate lighting to be excited about being a part of God’s body. The pure gospel was enough to put them in a place of awe.

We’re not doing people any favors by pretending they are the center of the universe. Either people will be awed by the sacred or they will not. If the sacred is not enough, then it is clear that the Spirit has not done a work in their lives. If the sheep don’t hear His voice, let them walk away. Don’t call out with your own voice. Too often we add in our own voices, thinking if we offer just the right services or package the gospel in just the right way so no one gets offended, we can convince people to stay. By catering our worship to the worshippers and not to the Object of our worship, I fear we have created human-centered churches … Many of us make decisions based on what brings us the most pleasure. This is how we choose our homes, jobs, cars, clothes, food, and churches. We pursue what we want; then we make sure there are no biblical commands we are violating. In essence, we want to know what God will tolerate rather than what He desires. Maybe we are afraid to ask what will bring Him the most pleasure. Ignorance feels better than disobedience.³

¹ Henry Chadwick, The Early Church, rev. ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1993), 237–38. The earliest traces of this passage referring to the Bishop of Rome or other such bishops as Peter’s successor can be traced to the early third century according to Oscar Cullman (Peter, Disciple, Apostle, Martyr: A Historical and Theological Study, 2nd ed. [London: SCM Press, 1962], 165–67).

² Oscar F. Seitz, “Upon this Rock: A Critical Reexamination of Matt 16:17–19,” Journal of Biblical Literature 69, no. 4 (Dec. 1950), 329–40.

³ Francis Chan, Letters to the Church (Colorado Springs: David Cook, 2018), 43, 53–54.

Doing Away with the Translation, “Church”

“Church” is, I believe, an anachronistic translation of ekklesia. It came to us through various languages which ultimately derived from kyriakos (“the Lord’s). This seems to have been used since AD 300 and onward, and when we think of the “church,” we ultimately envision the building wherein we meet. “Church” being used of the building in which we meet is accurate, and sometimes well-meaning Christians admonish that we “be the church and not simply go to church.” The sentiment is that as a living body, we should be active and not stationary—something with which I can agree. However, to describe our meeting places as churches—the word itself having derived from the German Kirche—is not altogether wrong. What many may be unaware of is that English is a Germanic language. We often think of it as based in Latin, but in truth, we use many loanwords from Latin and Greek, but our language itself is Germanic.

Ekklesia is often broken down by its compounds to define it in older scholarly works and many modern favorite tomes: ek meaning “out of” and kaleo meaning “call.” Hence, the church is often described as the “called out,” but out of what are we called? The world, so we’re told. Since most languages do not define terms based on their compounds, I favor looking at the language the way an ancient audience might have understood it rather than loaded with a theology which may have evolved later on. For this reason, I take a classical approach. The term, then, would have simply meant “assembly.” Doesn’t sound very spiritual or unique, does it? A term doesn’t have to be used with theological meaning for it to have a special significance as God may have used it. William Tyndale in 1526 produced the first English Bible translated from the Greek and translated this term as “congregation.” Wycliffe’s translation as earlier, but it used the Vulgate.¹

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus promised to build (architectural language) His “church,” or “assembly.” How should we understand this? “Assembly” referred to what was done and not where. It was often used of the assembly of citizens of a Greek city who made decisions for the city-state. It’s used in this vein in Acts 7:38 and 19:32, 40. To the Greeks, it was a noble word and denoted the activities of the Greek civic life.² The way that Matthew likely intended to portray it was in continuation of Israel’s history. Ekklesia and sometimes synagoge replace the Hebrew term in the LXX that denoted the people of God. Furthermore, the Semitic paradigm of Matthew’s account is evident in a few ways:

  • The blessing of Peter is an Old Testament style.
  • Addressing Peter by his father’s name—Bar Jona.
  • The play on words with Peter’s name in Greek.
  • The expressions “flesh and blood” and “bind and loose.”³

These each suggests a Jewish reading of the term and concludes that it must be understood as “assembly” as such that appeared at the base of Mt. Sinai when all Israel was assembled before God (cf. Deut. 4:9–10; 9:10–11; 18:15–16 LXX).  They did a few things that Jesus’ disciples would have likely paralleled to His statement:

  1. They consecrated themselves before assembling (Exod. 19:10).
  2. They assembled before God (Exod. 19:17).
  3. They heard God’s law (Exod. 20–23).
  4. They were instructed in the covenant and heard it read (Exod. 24:3–4, 7).
  5. A meal was eaten to partake of the sacrifice that ratified the covenant (Exod. 24:4–11).
  6. Offerings were collected for the tabernacle (Exod. 25:1–8).

We can see similarities between Israel’s and the Christian assembly. We too are consecrated by faith in baptism (cf. 1 Cor. 10:1–4), we assemble each Lord’s Day where we hear God’s Word read and are instructed in it, and we also partake of the Lord’s Supper and collect offerings. Whether it is a stretch or not to make those comparisons I’ll leave up to the reader with the one notable missing element being the singing of praises. All in all, when Christ promised to build His assembly, this is likely what His disciples envisioned.

¹ Jennifer Eyl, “Semantic Voids, New Testament Translation, and Anachronism: The Case of Paul’s Use of Ekklesia,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 26, no. 4 (May 2014): 315–39.

² Everett Ferguson, The Church of Christ: A Biblical Ecclesiology for Today (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 129–33.

³ Benjamin L. Merkle, “The Meaning of ‘Εκκλησíα in Matthew 16:18 and 18:17,” Bibliotheca Sacra 167 (July–September 2010): 281–91.

Our Priest in the Heavens

If I could summarize the entire book of Hebrews, it would be according to a hymn we often sing in worship: “How Great Thou Art.” Throughout the entire book, the author presents Christ as far greater than angels, Moses, the Torah, and up unto chapter eight, Jesus is presented as of a greater priesthood than the Aaronic priesthood. Christ, unlike the priests who served the temple, did not need to offer sacrifice for His sins, would not inherit the priesthood by a birth-right, and there would be no end to His priesthood. Because He was both the offerer and offering, Christ’s priesthood is far greater in that He was able to remove the blockades that kept humanity from approaching God without continual sacrifices. Now, He is not a high priest that after presenting His offering must retreat from God’s presence, but He is seated beside God Himself. No one sits in the presence of Majesty, but Jesus can because of who He is and what He has done (Heb. 8:1).

Furthermore, the priests who ministered did so in the temple, which was a “copy and shadow of the heavenly things” (Heb. 8:5). Jesus ministers in the actuality of what the priests on earth could only hope to minister in the city of Jerusalem. Jesus ministered in “the Jerusalem above” (Gal. 4:26). Many people have attended the Parthenon in Nashville, TN understanding that it is only a replica of the actual one whose ruins stands in Athens. However, by going to the one in Nashville, we can ascertain what it would have looked like and been in ancient Greece. Is it actual? No. It’s a replica just as how the temple was a replica of heaven, something insufficient in purpose but a temporary method to point to actuality (Heb. 9:8–12).

Of particular interest to me is the fact that Jesus is “liturgist of the holies” and of the true tabernacle (Heb. 8:2; my translation). In the temple, there were the menorahs along the walls, the showbread, and closest to the holy of holies was the altar of incense. At various times and in various ways, the floors would have been sprinkled with the blood of offerings as would have been the altar of incense. What were all these actions? They were the mediation of the covenant Israel made with God. We, however, are under a new covenant, and Christ as our liturgist mediates the new and better covenant (Heb. 8:6) which is the new covenant in His blood (Matt. 26:28), because it is the shedding of blood that enacts the covenant (Heb. 9:16–22). Since the work of the priests was to present offerings and gifts to God to effect reconciliation, this is the work Christ does (Eph. 2:13; Col. 1:20).  

How Early Christians Viewed the Lives of the Unborn

Abortions are nothing new. They’ve existed since antiquity as a method to limit the number of children a household had. However, the oath attributed to Hippocrates that doctors take to this day prohibited abortion in ancient Greece—“I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it nor will I make a suggestion to this effect. Similarly, I will not give a woman an abortive remedy. In purity and holiness, I will guard my life and my art.” Cicero argued that anyone who intentionally aborted a child deserved capital punishment (In Defense of Cluentius 32). In the Old Testament, we see the care God gives over the individual in His fashioning of them in the womb:

For You formed my inward parts; You covered me in my mother’s womb. I will praise You, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made; Marvelous are Your works, And that my soul knows very well. My frame was not hidden from You, When I was made in secret, And skillfully wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Your eyes saw my substance, being yet unformed. And in Your book they all were written, The days fashioned for me, When as yet there were none of them. (Psalm 139:13–16)

Then the word of the LORD came to me, saying: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you; Before you were born I sanctified you; I ordained you a prophet to the nations.” (Jer. 1:4–5)

The Ten Commandments were used by early Christians just as they were by Jews—as teachings that pertained to moral living. Notably, the sixth commandment, “Thou shall not kill,” was given a greater expansion in Christian thinking. Those familiar with biblical Hebrew might better render the sixth commandment as, “You shall do no murder.” “Murder” is a term that we understand differently than “kill.” “Murder” carries the weight of malicious intent. “Kill” doesn’t always carry that same weight. I might be driving my car and lose control and run over a person and “kill” them. However, I didn’t maliciously intend to do them any harm. The early Christians, likewise, valued life—including that of the unborn.

And the second commandment of the Teaching; You shall not commit murder … you shall not murder a child by abortion nor kill that which is born. (Didache 2.2)

But the path of darkness is crooked and full of cursing, for it is the path of eternal death and punishment, in which way are the things that destroy the soul … Here are they who are persecutors of the good, haters of truth, lovers of lies; they who know not the reward of righteousness, who cleave not to what is good nor unto just judgment … murderers of children. (Barnabas 20.1–2)

Christian writers believed that life began at conception. One early Christian inferred from Luke 1:41 when John leaped in Elizabeth’s womb that very belief (Instructor 2.10.96). Athenagoras pointed to Christianity’s rejection of abortion as proof that Christians were moral when he wrote that the Christians “say that those women who use drugs to bring on abortion commit murder, and will have to give an account to God s for the abortion” (Leg. 35). Later church councils forbade abortion and actually levied punishments against those Christians who murdered their unborn. The Council of Elvira (4th century) reflects such beliefs.

If a woman conceives in adultery and then has an abortion, she may not commune again, even as death approaches, because she has sinned twice. (can. 63)

A catechumen who conceives in adultery and then suffocates the child may be baptized only when death approaches. (can. 68)

Even some of the most notable early church theologians/bishops supported this stance. Both Augustine and John Chrysostom viewed abortion as murder.

Despite the rationale of those who advocate such today, there is always a scenario of mitigating circumstances that people rely on to justify the action. Those who favor abortion see the argument as a discussion of the woman’s body while those who oppose abortion view the matter relevant to the body of the unborn. How one considers the debate depends on their conclusion. However, I believe that even those who make the decision are deserving of compassion and mercy, because we may not know what led to their decision. All we can do as supporters of life is to listen, learn, and try to help.

A Typical Week of Ministry

I’m sure it can go without saying that each week presents its own challenges and has its own demands. However, there are certain items which must be accomplished every week by a specific deadline, and these are those to which I speak here.

Monday: typically a day off.

Tuesday: I record five radio devotionals each week that have to be no more than three minutes. I can sometimes spend half of a day or 3/4 of a day finding material and recording them to make sure they are prepared for the next week. I work ahead on this and like to have those done by Tuesday. After such is completed, I will begin in earnest on my Wednesday night Bible class. Usually, on this day I record a podcast with a friend of mine, and that can take an hour or so. Our podcast is entitled, “Nino and Notorious” after the late Justice Scalia and serving Justice RBG. I typically think closer to Nino and her to Notorious. We talk about life, politics, current events, etc.

Wednesday: This whole day is usually devoted to my class for the evening as well as devotional before dismissing to class. When I finish, I will begin working on Sunday’s sermons.

Thursday: Sunday’s sermons dominate the day. Hopefully, I will have begun on them by Wednesday at some point. The blog post published each Sunday is a written synopsis of my Sunday morning sermon. If you notice the previous posts, those are sermons I preached for the past Sunday mornings. I usually read scholarly articles about the text as well as a book section which I cite at the bottom of each post. The research aspect of a text can take more time than actually writing the sermon. Once I’ve done my research and study, the sermon itself naturally flows rather quickly. On Thursdays, I also attend Rotary meetings which are from 11:30–1:00.

Friday: This day is what I call a “clean up” day. I usually clean up everything required for Sunday. I  fine-tune my sermons as best I can, and then I prepare my Sunday Bible class, and I work on the bulletin for next week which consists of an article and the next week’s sermons.

Any/Every Day: Throughout what I have planned on each day, I will set aside time to make visits to either hospitals or homes. Then there are the funerals which may occur during these days as well as even on my scheduled days off. When that happens, it happens. I will be in the office each workday no later than 7:30 unless I have morning meetings scheduled. Being a Rotarian occupies some of my time and requires meetings and some planning, and I’m also on some local committees which also needs some time here or there. My wife and I have begun entertaining at our home, having brethren over here or there to better get to know them. There’s also the attention that I give to my family as husband and father, tending my chickens and little homestead, and unwinding and having time for myself. In addition to this, I’m a Reserve Deputy with our local Sheriff’s Office, so I volunteer when the need arises and also try to schedule ride-alongs with road units when my schedule allows. For example, tomorrow I will be working at the Judicial Building for half a day and helping with their needs. This was requested assistance, so I’ve reworked my schedule this week to help out with their needs and still cover what I need to include.

One thing that I’ve found vital to balancing my life’s requirements is good time management. With a congregation upwards of 700+ souls, meeting the needs of the congregation is my first priority behind only my own Christianity and family. Because I manage my time well, I’m able to do a lot, but a part of maintaining my time well means also saying, “No,” when I must. People are generally respectful of my time, and I’m grateful for that. There are, however, some folks who would waste my time were I to allow it. Yet, I have an excellent secretary who does a lot of screening for me via phone and at the front desk. I never mind stopping anything I’m doing for any of the brethren at Glendale Road, but others are typically required to make an appointment. One of the blogs that better helped me to manage my time well is Time Management Ninja. You’ll find a lot of useful tips there.

People often think we preachers work only one day a week, and it’s a bit of a running joke. Regardless, the one day a week that we are perceived to work is the most public aspect of our ministries, but a lot of other things happens throughout the rest of the week such as counselings, meeting with people who need spiritual advice or just the ear of a friend. There are things I know that I wish I didn’t, and there are things I know that I carry home with me each day because they affect people I’ve come to dearly love. The emotional toll is by far the worst part of the job, but when we care and love as Christ did, we better understand His compassion and grace towards all.

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