Building the church

What seems to us like defeat can become a great victory

Issue: "Rockwell's resurgence," Nov. 24, 2001

Was Christ building His church on Sept. 11? The reason this question rises is the absolute, universal authority behind Jesus' promise in Matthew 16:18, "I will build My church." Who said this? The One who spoke and fevers departed (Luke 4:39), trees withered (Mark 11:21), demons obeyed (Mark 1:27), Satan was plundered (Mark 3:27), wind ceased (Mark 4:41), the dead were raised (Luke 7:14; John 11:43), thousands ate from five loaves and two fish (Matthew 14:19-21), and water became wine (John 4:46) or a walkway for His feet (Matthew 14:26).

This power over heaven and earth and hell is explicitly related to Christ's missionary commitment to build His church. "I will build My church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matthew 16:18). "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (Matthew 28:18-19). In other words, Jesus is firmly committed to use His power over heaven and earth and hell to make disciples. No event in the universe that Christ produces or permits is outside His purpose to build His church.

But it doesn't always look that way. His ways are not our ways. He seldom moves in a straight line from A to B. The way up is almost always down. The path of God in redemptive history brings Paul to these words, "Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!" (Romans 11:33).

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For example, was Christ triumphantly building His church when He was killed by His enemies and buried for three days? Jesus answers: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" (John 2:19). "I lay down My life for the sheep. And I have other sheep that are not of this fold.... No one takes it from Me ... I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again" (John 10:15-16, 18). In other words, what looked like failure and tragedy was total authority-plus the purchase of "other sheep." By the worst sin that has ever been committed-the murder of the Son of God-Jesus was triumphantly building His church.

Was Christ building His church when the Apostle Paul was imprisoned in Rome? Paul answers: "What has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel, so that it has become known throughout the whole imperial guard and to all the rest that my imprisonment is for Christ. And most of the brothers, having become confident in the Lord by my imprisonment, are much more bold to speak the word without fear" (Philippians 1:12-14). I am "bound with chains as a criminal. But the word of God is not bound!" (2 Timothy 2:9). In other words, what looked like defeat was Christ's strange design for victory.

Was Christ building His church in China when the Communists triumphed in 1949, ending 150 years of Protestant missionary presence? "The growth of the church in China [since then] has no parallels in history.... Mao Zedong unwittingly became the greatest evangelist in history.... [He] sought to destroy all religious 'superstition' but in the process cleared spiritual roadblocks for the advancement of Christianity. Deng [Xiaoping] reversed the horrors inflicted by Mao and in freeing up the economy, gave more freedom to the Christians.... [Today] the church of the Lord Jesus is larger than the Communist Party of China" (Patrick Johnstone, Operation World).

So then, was this all-ruling Christ building His church on September 11? I answer with questions that are not merely hypothetical. What if Christ saw the planes heading for the destruction of thousands and the upheaval of nations? What if, at the same time, He saw millions of artificially secure, spiritually apathetic American "Christians," drifting toward everlasting destruction? And what if He saw a world of secular, postmodern people playing word games with the treasure of Truth? And what if He saw millions of Hindu untouchables contemplating conversion, but insensible of the weight and meaning of eternity? And what if He withheld His power from stopping the terrorists because (along with 10,000 other hope-filled effects) He had a view to the everlasting joy of more people than we have dreamed? And if our little minds can contemplate such things, what vast and greater good to build His church had Christ that day designed?

John Piper
John Piper

John is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary.

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