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The world’s only hope

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

Since I was born and raised in Texas, I’ve always been proud to be a Texan. But I didn’t know how good we have it until last week, when a friend sent me this geography lesson, a list of actual places in Texas.

Anyone need cheering up today? You can go to Happy, Pep, Smiley, Paradise, Rainbow, Sweet Home, or Comfort–all in Texas. Hungry? Try Bacon, Noodle, Oatmeal, Turkey, Trout, Sugar Land, Salty, Rice, or Sweetwater, Texas.

Why travel out of the state? We have Detroit, Colorado City, Denver City, Nevada, Memphis, Miami, Boston, and Santa Fe, Texas. Why leave the country? We have Athens, Moscow, China, Egypt, Italy, Turkey, London, New London, and Paris, Texas. We even have Earth, Texas.

If you’re cold, you should go to Blanket, Texas. If you need office supplies, try Staples, Texas. Kids should visit Kermit, Elmo, Nemo, Tarzan, Winnie, and Sylvester, Texas. The rest of us should try Frognot, Bigfoot, Hogeye, Notrees (I’ve actually been there!), Best, Veribest, Telephone, Telegraph, Twitty, and Ding Dong. When we’re done, we should go to Farewell, Texas.

There’s only one place on earth better to be than Texas. Jesus identified it: “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:18). How can you and I get on that rock? Why is standing on that rock the best decision you can make this morning, the only hope of the world and your soul today?

Who owns the church?

The scene is one of the most dramatic locations on earth. Standing 1150 feet above sea level, the massive rock outcropping at Caesarea Philippi is the largest I’ve ever seen, gray with streaks of metallic brown, flat and imposing. And towering above it is a gigantic cliff, dwarfing the valley below in every direction.

High up on that cliff our tour group could see a cave, the famous “Gates of Hades.” This cave leads to a shaft which bores down through the mountain and this rocky plateau on which it stands, deep into the earth. That shaft is so deep that its bottom has never been found. Even the most sophisticated measuring devices have not been able to determine its complete depth.

I will never forget standing on that rock, looking up at that cave, as long as I live. As I looked in awe, my mind traveled back to a time when another man stood where I was this day. As he himself looked around, he could feel the religious significance of the place.

Just a short distance away stood the brilliant white marble temple built by Herod the Great as an altar to the worship of the Roman Caesar, hence the name of the place, “Caesarea.” He knew the emperor was worshiped here.

Beneath his feet was that cavern where the Greeks said Pan, their god of nature, was born. He knew the Greek and Roman gods were worshiped here. Scattered around the place were fourteen temples to Baal, the Canaanite fertility god, where the pagan Syrians worshiped.

Somewhere below was the origin of the Jordan River, the holiest river in all the Jewish faith, the water Joshua and the people walked through to inherit the Promised Land, and he thought of his own Jewish traditions and worship.

On this gigantic rock, standing in the midst of temples to every kind of god known to their culture, a Galilean carpenter asked his followers, “Who do you say that I am?” And one of them, standing where I stood, said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” And he hears the Galilean say, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and”–pointing to the cave towering above them, dwarfing this small group of peasants gathered below–“even the gates of hell will not withstand your assault.”

Who owns the Church?

A survey was recently conducted, asking members and pastors whether the church exists to reach the world or to meet members’ needs. 90 percent of the members said it exists to meet members’ needs; 10 percent said it exists to reach the world. 90 percent of the pastors said it exists to reach the world; 10 percent said it exists to meet members’ needs.

Isn’t it easy to think that the members own the church? After all, it’s your tithes and offerings which keep the doors open and the lights on. You pay my salary and that of the rest of our staff, don’t you? And you come to be fed and inspired in worship, for your children to grow up in faith and moral teaching, to be with your friends and get help for your family. Don’t we all measure church by what we “get out of it”?

Isn’t the church something like a country club, where the head pro knows more about golf than anyone else? He has a staff to help him do what the members want done. But the head pro doesn’t run the club–that’s the job of the board of directors. They do this on behalf of the members. The members in turn pay dues for services received. If you don’t play golf, don’t pay for golf. Go to your club as it meets your needs.

Isn’t that the consumer church of our day, where I’m supposed to teach you how to find success without stress and the church exists to help you improve your life? Where therapy is the nature of preaching, and programs exist to meet all your needs?

Except that Jesus said, “I will build my church.” The Greek is emphatic–the Church belongs to him. The Bible says that Jesus is the “head” of the church (Ephesus 5:23). We are the “body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12:27). Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me” (Matthew 28:18).

The Church is his. This church is his. He is the Lord of this Church, or we are not a church. We may be a charitable organization, a civic society, a benevolent institution, but we are not a church. If we’re in charge, we’re not a church. If we’re doing what we want, coming to meet our needs, leading the church to do what we want it to do, we’re not the church of Jesus Christ.

If our church was as submitted to the Lordship of Jesus Christ as you are, would that be a good thing?

What is our purpose?

How can we know if he is in charge of our church? By asking if his purpose is our purpose. He said, “I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” Literally, they will not “withstand its assault.” We belong to Jesus to the degree that we obey Jesus. 1 John 5:3 says, “This is love for God: to obey his commands.”

His command to his church is clear: “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). His last words before returning to heaven reinforced the point: “you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).

We are called to bear “spiritual fruit,” to reproduce spiritually, to be Christians who make Christians and a church which makes churches.

John the Baptist warned us: “every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matthew 3:10).

Jesus repeated the point with his disciples shortly before his crucifixion: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener.  He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful.  You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.  Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not remain in me, he is like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned” (John 15:1-6).

Bearing spiritual fruit through multiplication is crucial to reaching the world. I recently turned 49 years old. If I could win one a day until the age of 70, I would see 5,840 people come to Christ. That’s growth by addition. Growth by multiplication is something quite different: I win one today; the two of us win one tomorrow; the four of us win one the next day, and so on. In 34 days, the number is 8,589,934,592. By June 30, the entire planet would know Christ.

We are a church to the degree that we obey Jesus. We obey Jesus to the degree that we are disciples and make disciples, to the degree that we are reproducing followers of Jesus. The tree is healthy to the degree that it bears fruit. We are healthy to the degree that we bear spiritual fruit.

Nothing else matters–not the size of the tree or the beauty of its leaves. Only its fruit.

Conclusion

On this Memorial Day weekend, we pause as Americans to remember those who have given their lives in our nation’s service. We honor their sacrifice with our gratitude and commitment to our nation.

It is fitting on this weekend that we also pause to remember the sacrifice of the One who gave his life for us, that we might be the Church, the body of Christ. That we might have life everlasting. And that we honor his sacrifice with our gratitude and the commitment of our lives and service.

So, are we the church of Jesus Christ today? Do we belong to him? Are we passionate about his purpose for us?

As members of the body of Christ, do we seek his will and purpose in all things, first? Do we pray before we act? Do we submit our lives to him every morning at the start of each day? Do we seek his word and will before we make our decisions? Do we confess our sins as soon as we commit them and seek his cleansing grace? Do we seek to share our faith with those we can influence for our Savior? Do we give sacrificially of our time and money in the cause of his Kingdom? If the Church belonged to Jesus as much as we do, would that be a good thing?

Those of you who are leaders of this church: is your leadership surrendered to Jesus Christ? Do you pray first in all your decisions and actions? Are you seeking to share your faith and build the Kingdom? Are you seeking to lead the church to assault the gates of hell in all we do? Are you bearing fruit? Are you leading us to bear fruit?

Human words cannot change human hearts. Only the Spirit working through us can save souls and change lives. Only when we are submitted to Christ as Lord, his purpose ours, can he use us with significance and joy. We are the only body of Christ on earth, the only light of the world and the only salt of the earth. We are the only spiritual, eternal hope of the world. We must be his, so the world can be his.

Will we have the courage to be fully his? To surrender every day to his Lordship and will? To assault the gates of hell as reproducing followers of Jesus, whatever it takes, wherever he leads? This week I found an essay defining “courage,” and was impressed to learn it and share it with you.

“Why is it that most people’s lives are controlled by small and petty circumstances? I am saddened as I watch people lose the good and great things that are within their reach and could be theirs with ‘but a little act of courage!’

“Courage can be defined as ‘acting in the face of fear.’ We need courage only when we are afraid, which means that we need courage almost all the time, because we are afraid of something all of the time.

“I have discovered that fear becomes a coward when faced with but a small act of courage. And further, that the muscle of courage will grow strong with continued use.

“I have studied the deeds of people both great and small, and I have studied those people who are both great and small. There appear to be many differences. But all the differences which count have, at their base, one single thing–courage.

“Courage is the one ingredient which separates the weak from the strong, the successful from the failed, the great from the average. All the things you desire in life have one common handle, which is made for the hand of the person with courage. To be afraid is to be alive. To act in the face of fear is to follow Christ.”

Will you choose courage today?