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THE ENSIGN MESSAGE

UPON THIS ROCK I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH – (I)

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(Here We Shall Discover Both the Rock and the Church)

The supreme teacher was in the Northland with His disciples, and was about to reveal to them the living foundation upon which His Church is built, which revelation would be confirmed to them by God the Father in a most awesome and unforgettable experience, but the profound meaning of this revelation could not be grasped by His disciples until they had decided a vital question: ‘Who is this amazing Teacher and Master among men?’

They had seen the raging winds and engulfing waves stilled at His word, and had asked each other: What manner of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?” (Matthew 8:27).

They had heard the multitudes asking, as they beheld His mighty works: ‘Who is this? Is this the Messiah?’ The rulers of the people denied it contemptuously, creating doubts in the minds of many.

So there were honest doubters and earnest seekers asking the same momentous question: ‘Is this the long-promised One Whom God has appointed and anointed to be the Redeemer of His people Israel, the Saviour of men and King over all the Earth?’

It is vital that His disciples utter that conviction which His works have been creating in their minds and His life has been creating in their hearts. So He calls for their open declaration: ‘Whom say ye that I am?’ Their spokesman answered at once: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God’ (Matthew 16:15-16).

The Messiah at once confirmed the truth of this pregnant confession. He addresses Peter by his formal name, in Aramaic: ‘Blessed art thou, Simon Bar-jona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven’ (Matthew 16:17).

Peter had been listening through the months he had been with the Lord. He had been observing and thinking, and the use of his human powers prepared him to see this great truth; but Jesus tells him explicitly that it was a revelation given to him by his Father in heaven which had made this great truth crystal clear to him; that this wonderful Man in their midst is the Messiah, and that He is the Son of God.

In the tense atmosphere of high perception and confession He focuses their attention upon the coming revelation by the words: ‘And I (the Messiah, the Son of the Living God) say also unto thee, That thou art Peter (petros, a small stone), and upon this rock (petra) I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it’ (Matthew 16: 18)

What is “This Rock?”

Our Lord’s use of petros and petra side by side has been called ‘a play on words.’ The word ‘play’ suggests something light, not to be taken seriously. (Is there anything in all that the Lord has said that we should not take seriously?). Our Lord placed the word petra alongside the word petros deliberately and His disciples understood what He meant by petra for He had used this word once before in teaching His disciples and the multitudes, using it with a meaning that was unmistakable to them.

It was at the climax of that memorable address which became known as the ‘Sermon on the Mount’, in which He had set forth in terse, authoritative sentences the great fundamentals of the Kingdom of God. Through it He had frequently corrected the scribes’ superficial and foolish interpretations of the Law by the significant words: ‘But I say unto you.’ Later He said: ‘Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away’ (Matthew 24:35). And at the end of this searching ‘sermon’ He brought His hearers sharply up to the vital issue by an unforgettable parable: ‘The house built on the rock (petra).’

He began that parable with the words: ‘Whosoever cometh to me, and heareth my sayings, and doeth them, I will show you to whom he is like: he is like a man which built a house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation (themelios) on a rock (petra)’ (Luke 6:47-48).

 

Looking at God’s Foundation

The Greek word themelios is uniformly translated in our English New Testament by the word ‘foundation’; but today the ‘foundation’ generally includes the masonry work and the rock or other base upon which man lays his masonry foundation. Hence, when we meet the word ‘foundation’ in the New Testament it connotes for us both the masonry work (themelios) and its base (petra). We miss the point of the parable, however, if we fail to note that Jesus said the wise builder lays his foundation (themelios) upon the rock (petra). This petra is the primal, abiding foundation laid by God, upon which the wise builder lays his masonry foundation (themelios).

When Jesus spoke that parable (quoted from Luke 6:47-48) He made it very clear that He was that Petra upon which the wise must build; and He confirmed this decisively in the second part of the parable: ‘And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended and the floods carne, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it’ (Matthew 7:26-27). Thus He rnade it doubly clear that He is that Petra.

In Matthew 16:13-18, Jesus again uses the figure of building ‘upon the rock,’ giving His disciples that great revelation just preceding the Transfiguration. In the tense atmosphere which He had created, He focused their attention sharply upon ‘the rock’ (petra) by introducing the demonstrative pronoun ‘this’ (taute), which points to that which is present before them and important, and upon which Jesus wishes to fix their attention. Was it Petros, who proved anything but rock-like in the crucial test? (1)

Something vastly more important was gripping their attention there. Jesus had deliberately elicited from them the thrilling confession: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ and He instantly confirmed the vital importance and authority of this great confession by telling them most solemnly that this fundamental truth had been given to them by a direct revelation from God the Father in heaven. It is this acceptance and confession of Himself as the Messiah, the Son of the living-God which is the rock upon which His Church is built. (2)

That this is the true meaning has been confirmed down the ages by the fact that where men have accepted and confessed Him as the Son of God, Churches have risen and become great, and when their great leaders passed through the gates of death, His Church ‘fell not: for it was founded upon a rock’ (Matthew 7:25).

Other facts known to the disciples pointed to Jesus as the rock. Before His birth He was, by Divine decree, named Yoshua (Jesus), the short form of Yahovah-Shua (Yahovah-Saviour). The disciples were Israelites and knew the many references in the sacred Scriptures to Jehovah as their ‘Rock.’ Paul, looking back to the time Messiah was forming His Church in the wildemess, said the ‘Rock’ that followed (3) them … was Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4).

It was in those far-off days in the wilderness that Moses sang: ‘I will publish the name of the Lord the Rock. Then he forsook God which made him, and lightly esteemed the Rock of his salvation’ (Deuteronomy 32:15).

‘Of the Rock that begat thee thou art unmindful, and hast forgotten God that forrned thee’ (verse 18).

‘How should one chase a thousand, and two put ten thousand to flight, except their Rock had sold them, and the Lord had shut them up?’ (verse 30).

‘For their rock is not as our Rock, even our enemies themselves being judges’ (verse 31).

‘There is none holy as the Lord … neither is there any rock like our God’ (I Samuel 2:2).

‘The Lord is my rock, and my fortress, and my deliverer; the God of my rock … He is my shield’ (2 Samuel 22:2,3).

‘For who is God, save the Lord? And who is a rock save our God?’ (verse 32).

‘The Lord liveth; and blessed be my rock; and exalted be the God of the rock of my salvation’ (verse 47).

‘The spirit of the Lord spake by rne … The God of Israel said, the Rock of Israel spake to me’ (2 Samuel 23:2-3).

‘They returned and enquired early after God. And they remembered that God was their rock, and the high God their redeemer’ (Psalm 78:34-35).

This glad testimony that Jehovah is their Rock runs right through the Old Testament Scriptures. The great and mighty ‘Rock’ was a Principal Symbol in the faith of the Israelites. The very words used in these many references to the ‘Rock’ make it quite clear that lifeless stone is not meant, but that the Living and Almighty Jehovah is that ‘Rock.’

When the Lord had pointed to Himself as the Rock on which the wise builder must build, the meaning was plain to His disciples. Nor was it forgotten. A few months later Peter, in his forthright sermon, said, ‘Ye elders of Israel’ and ‘Rulers of the people’ and he drove home to them the fact that they had murdered Jesus the Messiah, but that God had raised Him from the dead and had made Him the Head of the Corner. A few days later he tells these ‘elders of lsrael’ again that this Jesus the Messiah, the Nazarene, Whom they murdered but God raised up, is that ‘stone despised by you builders, which has become head of the corner,’ and that ‘There is no salvation by any-one else, nor even a second Name under heaven appointed for us men and our salvation’ (Acts 4:11-12, Moffat).

Some years later Peter reaffirms this great truth when he is writing to ‘the exiles of the Dispersion’ (Diaspora) dwelling in great numbers in ‘Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia’ (1 Peter 1:1). (These were Israelites of the early dispersions by the Assyrians and Babylonians not ‘the Jews’ whom the Romans ‘scattered’ later when Titus destroyed Jerusalem in A.D. 70).

 

The Rejected Stone Is Precious

In his second pregnant chapter of his letter to them Peter writes: ‘Come to him then – come to that living Stone which men have rejected and God holds choice and precious’ (1 Peter 1: 4-5, Moffat). He then quotes from Isaiah 28:16; Psalm 118: 22 and Isaiah 8:14 to prove that it had been foretold of old that the foundation laid by God in Zion would be (for those ‘builders’) but a stone (lithos) which they would despise and reject, and then feel scandalized (skandalos) because He Whom they despised and rejected as a lithos should now be proclaimed as the rock base (Petra) which God had laid before the foundation of the world.

Paul also affirms explicitly that no other foundation can be laid than that which is laid. Moffat brings this out clearly: ‘The foundation is laid, namely Jesus Christ, and no one can lay any other’ (I Corinthians 3:11). (4)

The eternal living base on which His Church universal is built is not Paulos, it is not Cephas, but Jesus the Messiah, the Son of the living God.

We have been considering at length the Rock on which something was to be built. Now we consider what the building is to be. Our Lord said to His disciples: ‘Upon this rock I will build my Church.’

 

What Is ‘My Church’?

What would the Disciples understand by ‘my church’? Our Lord did not use the word church for it did not exist until centuries after the event we are discussing. He probably used the Hebrew word Qahal or its Aramaic equivalent.

Our English word ‘church’ derives from the Greek word kuriakos which means ‘of, or belonging to the Lord’ (kurios). It occurs but twice in the Bible (I Corinthians 11:20 and Revelation 1: 10) and is correctly rendered as ‘the Lord’s supper’ and ‘the Lord’s day.’ This word kuriakos gradually changed to ‘kuriak’ then to ‘kerk,’ then ‘kirk’ and ‘kerchen’ from which we get ‘church.’

It is most interesting to note that this word kuriakos which our Lord did not use in reference to His Church, gradually changed into ‘church.’ This points us to the vital fact that the Church is of the Lord, and belongs to the Lord. It is founded upon Him: He is its Head – it is the Lord’s Church. While the etymology of our word ‘church’ does not help us determine what His disciples understood Him to mean when He said ‘my church,’ we do have definitive and authoritative means of determining what He meant. In our English bible the word ‘church’ is used regularly (108 times) to translate the word ekklesia of the Greek text of the New Testament, and the same Greek word is used regularly in the Septuagint to translate the word Qahal of the Hebrew Old Testament.

The Septuagint is the authorised translation of the Hebrew Old Testament made about 270 B.C. by a large body of selected Hebrew scholars. Those scholars translating Hebrew into Greek, when Greek was the living language of the day, regularly employed the Greek word ekklesia to translate the Hebrew word Qahal. This Greek version (Septuagint) of the Old Testament was in common use in our Lord’s day, and during the writing of the New Testament, as is evidenced by the many quotations taken from it.

Stephen must have used this Hebrew word Qahal when he spoke of the ‘church in the wilderness’ (Acts 7:38), for he was defending himself before the Sanhedrin formally assembled under the High Priest to try him for blasphemy and Hebrew was required.(5) Luke renders this correctly by the word ekklesia.

What is the Qahal?

Our Lord also was speaking Hebrew (Aramaic) to Peter and must have used this word Qahal which Matthew renders ekklesia in the Greek version of his record of the Gospel.

Again (Matthew 18) when our Lord told His disciples that an offender who would not listen to their efforts for reconciliation must be brought before the ‘church,’ and that if he would not listen to the ‘church’ he should be excommunicated, they did not think he was referring to some unknown future organisation, for they knew what the Qahal-ekkiesia was. They also knew what excommunication from that Qahal meant.(6)

Obviously if we can determine what the Qahal of the Old Testament was we shall then know what the disciples understood our Lord to mean when He said He would build His Church – the Ekklesia – on Petra. It is very important for Christians to have this reliable knowledge.

A reference Bible much used by Sunday School teachers and others says: ‘The Acts of the Apostles records the descent of the Holy Spirit, and the beginning of a new thing in human experience – the Church.’ Many others are teaching that God’s people, Israel, sinned so badly that God had to cast them away and begin over again with Gentile nations and establish a Gentile Church.

The Rornan Catholic Church agrees with this, and clairns to be that Gentile successor of the Israel Church, and heir of all the blessings and authority of the Israel Church and that its head, the Pope, is the Vice-Regent of God on earth. On the other hand, a long succession of able scholars, reaching down into our own day, have taught that the Christian Church is a continuation of that ancient Israel Church which God founded at Sinai. It is vital that we know the Scripture answer to the question ‘what is “my church”?’ for it profoundly affects our beliefs, our religious thought and our attitudes.

The word Qahal (7) as applied to twelve-tribed Israel, appears in Egypt when God is commanding Moses about that solemn and perpetual memorial – the Passover (Exodus 12). He uses another word, edah, in the same passage. It refers to the whole multitude, including sojourners; and that ‘mixed multitude’ that came out of Egypt with the children of Israel. These words continue to be used side by side to the end of the Old Testament (about 225 times).

 

The National Church

A careful study of the contexts in which these two words appear soon makes it clear that the edah includes the whole multitude, while the Qahal is that somewhat smaller body whose members may partake of that great religious memorial – the Passover. In other words they were the communicant members of the National Church – the circumcised. If any sojourner, or one from that mixed multitude wanted to partake of the Passover he must first accept Jehovah as His God, and be circumcised, and this made him a full member of the Israel Church, with the same laws applying to him as to the homeborn.(8)

Those who translated the Hebrew Old Testament into English have obscured the truth by translating Qahal and edah sometimes as ‘congregation’ and sometimes as ‘assembly’. In a few cases where the same Hebrew word is used twice in a verse they have translated that same word once as ‘congregation’ and then as ‘assembly!’ Verily our subtle and everbusy Enemy loses no opportunity to confuse, even the very elect.

If our English translators had rendered the words Qahal and edah uniformly by the same English words there is no doubt we would have seen more readily, in our study of the contexts in English, that edah refers to the whole multitude of those moving under the general name of ‘Israel’ and that the Qahal was a somewhat smaller group, the circumcised – set apart from the edah. They were communicant members of the national Church of Israel. They were the ‘called out’ in a double sense – called out of the edah. The translators of the Septuagint translated the Hebrew word ‘Qahal’ regularly by the Greek word ekklesia, which also means the ‘called out!’

We find this Qahal first in Egypt, then in the wilderness of Zin, then at Sinai where God gave them their organisation, their constitution, their law and ordinances, their house of worship and its altars and appointments; their priests, ministers and elders; their ritual and some of their liturgy; and their financial system, among other elements. The Qahal was the national Church.

(Part 2 of this article will be in the next issue)

NOTES

(1) On that fatal night when the Son of God was betrayed, Peter thrice denied that he had ever known Him; and he made this lying denial despite his Masters’prior solemn warning. Again, after many years, when the Christians in Antioch were sorely needing the courageous witness of this forgiven Aposde’, Peter quafled, and dissembled, and refused to eat with the Gentile Christians, with whom he had been eating until the coming of the circumcision party from Jerusalem.

(2) In a remarkable speech by Catholic Bishop Strossmayer in. the Vatican Council of 1870 in the presence of Pope Pius IX, he quotes numerous statements of the early Church Fathers on this important point: St Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers:’The Rock (Petra) is the blessed and only rock of the faith confessed by the mouth of St Peter, it is on this rock of the confession of faith that the Church is built.’

St Chrysostom: ‘On this rock 1 will build my Church – that is on the faith of the confession ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.’

St Augustine (A.D. 354), one of the greatest of the Church Fathers: ‘What do the words mean, ‘I will build my Church on this Rock?’ On this faith, that which said ‘Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God’ and again, ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock (Petra) which thou hast confessed, and on this rock which thou hast known, saying, Thou art the Christ the Son of the living God, I will build my Church, upon myself who am the Son of God.’

(3) Our word ‘followed’ does not give the true picture Paul set out. The Greek participle that the translators rendered ‘which followed them’ also means ‘to attend.’ It amplifies the great promise: ‘My presence shall go with you and I will give you peace.’A literal rendering of I Corinthians 10:4 would be ‘and did all drink the same spiritual drink for they drank of a spiritual companion or attending-Rock – the Rock was Messiah;’ not an inert block of stone but a mighty Personality; the strong, unshakeable foundation upon whom this people and their exodus purpose was based. He was their almighty Defence, and unto them was ‘as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land’(lsaiah 32:2). That Rock, the Son of God, was with them all the way, ministering to the needs of this stiff-necked, rebellious people.

(4) Paul was turning the Corinthian Christians away from their squabbling (as to who was the most important in the Church) by showing that all are fellow-workers with God whether in planting or building. ‘I did the planting, Apollos did the watering, but God made the seed grow’ (I Corinthians 3:6 Moffat). As a wise Architect I laid a themelios upon which some other built the oikos, but the great immovable base is laid (by God), and it is Jesus the Messiah.

(5) See Edersheim’s Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah: Vol. 2, sl-84(1889).

(6) It was a rnonotheistic Church with millions of members. It was highly organised, active, widely spread, and in it our Lord and His disciples were cornmunicant members.

(7) The word Qahal is used prophetically by Isaac about three centuries before the Exodus (Genesis 28:3) when he is bestowing his blessing upon Jacob, that his seed may become ‘a qahal of people.’

It is used again when God made His covenant with Jacob- Israel at Bethel, that his seed shall become a ‘a qahal of nations.’ (Genesis 35:11).

So also is it used when Jacob-lsrael is bestowing the birthright upon Joseph and his two sons (Genesis 48:4). These three passages refer to the formative stage when the seed of Israel were being multiplied to become that Qahal which God would establish formally at Sinai.

(8) To help readers understands the difference between Qahal and edah in the Old Testament, additional Notes will be published at the end of this series.

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