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The church God can bless

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topical Scripture: Matthew 16:13-20

The Dallas Cowboys begin their 48th season today. They have won five Super Bowls, tied for most in NFL history. They have 16 players in the NFL’s Hall of Fame in Canton, and will send another when Emmitt Smith becomes eligible in three years. They will soon occupy a $1 billion stadium, the most expensive ever built. They have a payroll of $82 million. But none of that matters when they play the New York Giants tonight, does it? They believe they can win the Super Bowl this year. If they don’t, nothing else they do will count.

Today we pause to celebrate all that God has given our family of faith. A $34.7 million facility, nearly paid for in full. We begin our fourth morning worship service today. We again ended the year with a giving surplus because of the faithfulness of our people. You’ve heard some of the good news from our summer ministries, as we have completed another successful season of Vacation Bible School, children’s sports and day camps, Youth Camp, and mission trips around the globe.

For what purpose? What is our Super Bowl? What is the victory which matters most? There is only one purpose God can bless, and therefore only one kind of church he can bless. If we want to be that church, we must fulfill that purpose. If we want God to bless our lives and our families, we must fulfill that purpose. In this league, there is no prize for second place.

Why to attack Hell

Let’s get the setting in our minds again.

Two years or so into his public ministry, Jesus and his disciples have taken some time to get away, retreating to Caesarea Philippi on the far northern edge of Galilee. This was the resort center of antiquity, the Vail or Jackson Hole of the first century. High in the hills, its climate is always cool.

Jesus and his friends were gathered in one of the most beautiful places in that part of the world. Surrounded by forests and hills, with a creek meandering at their side, they finally had some rest and quiet. I’ve been there twice–it is my favorite place to visit in the Holy Land.

Now they had time to reflect on their years together. Jesus asked them, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (v. 13). They answered with the popular speculation. “But what about you?” he pressed the point. And Simon Peter, their impetuous, boastful, mercurial leader, got something right. He became the first person in history to utter the words, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (v. 16).

To this declaration Jesus replied, “On this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (v. 18). When we began our summer series with this text, we emphasized the first part of Jesus’ proclamation: the fact that this is his church.

His Greek was emphatic: “I will build the church of me.” It is a genitive of possession: this church belongs to Jesus and to him alone. Not to Jesus and us, or Jesus and the deacons, or Jesus and the culture. This is his church, or it’s not a church.

If we’re calling the shots and running the show, we can build a wonderful benevolent organization, a religious society, a Rotary Club with a Bible study, but we cannot build a church. Only Jesus can build a church. And he builds only the church that is his. We are his, or we are not a church.

Today we need to emphasize the second half of his sentence: “and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Literally, “the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” The word means “to have strength against,” “to stand up to.”

Gates do not attack–they defend. We put signs on our gates that say “Bad Dog” to warn people away. When last did you see a sign, “Bad Gate”? Who has a vicious gate at their house, a gate which attacks you when you come near?

We had to replace the backyard fence at our house a couple of years ago, and put up a new gate as well. It has since warped in the weather so that I’ve had to cut and saw and sand it several times. Try doing that to a Doberman. But my gate just sits there in silence. It opens and shuts, and does nothing else. That’s what gates do.

Here Jesus speaks of the “gates of Hades.” He was pointing to a cave high on the cliff overhead, a cave which leads to a cavern which bores down into the earth. The ancients called it the “gates of the underworld” or the “gates of Hades.” It’s still there today. It hasn’t moved. It doesn’t threaten anyone. You can look at it, and climb up to it, and say what you want about it, and it can’t strike back. It’s just a gate.

In Jesus’ metaphor, it’s the gate which leads to Hades, to the lair of the dead, to the realm of the enemy.

Everyone and everything on earth is on one side of that gate or the other. You either belong to God or you belong to Satan. You serve your Lord or you serve his enemy. There’s no middle ground, no neutral Switzerland of the soul, no demilitarized zone. Every person on earth is claimed either by God in Christ or by Satan and his demons.

It is our job to attack the gates of Hades so we can rescue those who are imprisoned on the other side. It is our job to reclaim souls from hell for heaven. This is why Jesus said he builds his church. It is our one reason for existing. It is the only purpose he will bless.

How to attack Hell

Everything we celebrate today has been built by God for this one purpose. How do we fulfill it? How do we win this victory? How can we be the church and the people God can bless?

First, we choose the same goal. Passionately, personally, collectively.

The Cowboys won’t have much success if they don’t all run the same plays. If Tony Romo fades back to pass and Julius Jones takes the ball from him so he can run with it, not much good will result. Imagine Terrell Owens swatting the ball down so Jason Witten can’t catch it. Unfortunately, you’re describing some of the churches and Christians I’ve watched over the years. I heard about a man who said he pastored one church and refereed two others.

The church exists to attack Hell. If you’re not on board with that purpose, if you’re coming to church for any other purpose, you’re in the way. If you came not to worship God but to be seen; if you came not to give to God but only to get something from him, you’re not playing on his team. Jesus is building a church which will attack Hell. If you’re not committed to that purpose, if you’re running your own plays instead, you need to repent and submit to him as your King and Lord.

You exist to be his ambassador, his fisher of men, his salt and light. You exist to be his witness, to make disciples of all nations. That’s why you’re on earth. That’s why you have your job, or attend your school, or live in your community. That’s why you’re here. If you want a life God can bless, get on the team.

Second, we take Christ to the lost.

If the Cowboys are to have success this year, they’ll have to seize it. No one is going to give them a yard or a point. No one will care about their $1 billion stadium or $82 million payroll. You don’t score points by staying in the huddle. The team that takes the initiative is the team that wins.

That’s even more true spiritually. The people on the other side of the gates of Hades cannot get out. They cannot get to us. It’s not just that the lost people we know don’t want to come to Christ and to church. The Bible says that they are spiritually deceived (1 Corinthians 2:14).

Satan has convinced them that they can be as God, knowing good and evil (cf. Genesis 3:5). He has them believing that they have all of God they need, that they can go to heaven if they’re good and believe in God, that it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as you’re sincere and tolerant. He has convinced them that they don’t need what we have to give, any more than you think you need what a Buddhist temple offers.

And so we must go to them. A “fisher of men” goes where the fish are found. He doesn’t wait in the boat for the fish to jump in. He doesn’t fish when it’s convenient, or use the bait he most enjoys. He does whatever it takes to get to the fish.

In Dallas, Texas, you’re that bait. You are those fishers of men. You will talk to more unchurched people this week than I’ll see this month. You are the only Bible most will read, the only church they’ll attend. That’s why it is so crucial that you pray by name for lost people, and invite them to something spiritual.

We will give you every opportunity we can. We will give you four Sunday morning worship services and Bible studies and spiritual events all week long. We are putting ads in the North Park movie theater and using media across our community. But lost people are not sitting at home hoping that we will begin another worship service or a Bible study. They won’t come just because they saw an ad. If you’ll invite them, they’ll come. If you won’t, they won’t. Who do you know on the other side of the gates of Hades today?

Last, we fight until the victory is won. Here’s the incredible good news: if we attack, we will win. Jesus guarantees victory to his church’s assault: “the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” As you work, God works. When you speak his word by his Spirit’s leading, he empowers you and uses you. He saves souls and changes lives. He builds his Kingdom. And you get to be a part of the most exciting purpose in life.

Conclusion

We are meeting today so we can go marching tomorrow. The church God can bless is the church that is attacking Hell. The life God can bless is the life that is attacking Hell. Can God bless us? Can God bless you?

Martin Luther said, “The world does not need a definition of religion so much as it needs a demonstration.” Will you be that demonstration? Will you pray for those who are trapped on the other side of the gates of Hell? Will you ask God to use your life and time, your abilities and resources to help them? Will you volunteer for service? Will you surrender to his purpose and power? Will you live a life God can bless?

All over the world, God is using his people to assault the gates of Hell.

In 40 years, only about one-fifth of the world’s Christians will be Anglos. The number of Christians in Africa has grown from 10 million in 1900 to 360 million in 2000. Nearly half the continent is Christian. There are more Christians in Ethiopia than there are Methodists in North America. In South Korea, where there was not a single born-again Christian in 1900, nearly one half of the nation follows Jesus. They are sending more missionaries into the world than we are.

God is preparing for a day when we will say with John in Revelation, “there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:9). The church that wants that future, the church that attacks Hell to create that future is the church God can bless.

Will we be that church? Will you?