Jesus has just listened to Peter’s confession. He has responded that he will build his powerful church on that rock. But, what is the rest of the story? Just how will Christ build his church? Matthew 16:21–23 tells you.
Understand that Jesus had to suffer, die, and be raised. The suffering of Jesus is how he builds his church. Although this is not the beginning of Jesus’ own awareness of his coming suffering and death, and Matthew has already hinted at its approach, it marks the start of Jesus’ intensive instruction of his disciples on the subject. Jesus says, “He must,” indicating the necessity of what he was about to do. This was not an option, not a possibility. Rather, he was about to fulfill what God had ordained and had prophesied in the Old Testament Scriptures. Significantly, Jesus waited with this instruction until Peter had made his confession. Perhaps doing it earlier would have confused the disciples about his Messianic work. Peter has now made his confession, but his concept of what the Messiah would do needs to be drastically revised. Jesus is telling you how he will build his church. It’s construction will involve his own suffering, betrayal, and death. Jesus tells you the location of his suffering: Jerusalem, the place where God had caused his name to dwell, The place where the temple stood, the city of the Great King. Those inflicting the suffering would be the religious leaders, the elders, chief priests, and teachers of the law. (This combination of the three groups apparently refers to the Sanhedrin.) If there was any group that should have been ready for the coming Messiah, that should have welcomed him, it ought to have been the Sanhedrin. But they will reject him, and cause him to suffer. Ultimately he will be killed. The gates of Hades will not prevail against the church he is building, but he will enter the realm of the dead.
The suffering leads to his resurrection. Suffering and death alone would have meant defeat, not victory for the Messiah. Note the passive verb, be raised. Just as he suffers, just as he is killed, so he will be raised up. The active party, in this case, however, it the Father in heaven. The passive is significant, because Jesus is killed and raised as your representative. What happens to him also is done to you. You have been raised with Christ. The necessity applies to the resurrection just as to the death. It too, fulfills Scripture. The resurrection will happen on the third day.
Keep in mind the things of God. Jesus rebukes Peter for his reaction. Peter’s rebuking Jesus is understandable. Peter’s motives may have been good. There is no need to suppose that his aversion to the news of Jesus’ death was out of personal fear. Rather, the idea of suffering and death just didn’t fit with Peter’s (or the popular) idea of the Messiah. If there were suffering, it must be inadvertent or minor. If there were the risk of death, it must be accidental, a risk taken to gain greater things. The idea of suffering and death being necessary just didn’t fit. Further, the concept that Israel, through its leaders, would persecute and kill the longed-for Messiah was beyond comprehension. The idea is so strange that Peter takes Jesus aside (perhaps trying to be tactful), and rebukes him. A crucified and risen Lord continues to be an offense. Our culture is (sometimes) willing to tolerate a Baby in a manger. It is willing to consider Jesus as a teacher or example. But a Savior who has to die forces you to confront your own sinfulness. Sin is not some minor offense. Rather, it is something so severe that you cannot compensate for it. You cannot pay its price. The penalty required is nothing less that the death of the God-man.
And the resurrection! If the Savior who died has been raised, and if that is more than a myth, it means that Jesus is someone you have to reckon with. Whether or not you feel like submitting to him, he is the Lord of glory. He is alive! He is the King who requires your allegiance. Nevertheless Peter’s suggested course is satanic in its effect. Jesus turns to Peter, and rebukes him in language that is so strong it is startling. The rebuke of Peter echoes Jesus’ command to Satan to leave, Matthew 4:10. The temptation is strikingly similar. Peter contemplates a messiahship without suffering, victory without a cross, glory without obedience. “Christ satisfied justice. ‘The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all’ (Isa. 53:6). He was made sin and he was made a curse. He bore our iniquities. He bore the unrelieved and unmitigated damnation of sin, and he finished it. That is the spectacle that confronts us in Gethsemane and on Calvary…. Here we are the spectators of a wonder the praise and glory of which eternity will not exhaust. It is the Lord of glory, the Son of God incarnate, the God-man, drinking the cup given him by the eternal Father, the cup of woe and of indescribable agony. We almost hesitate to say so. But it must be said. It is God in our nature forsaken of God. The cry from the accursed tree evinces nothing less than the abandonment that is the wages of sin.” (John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, p. 77)
Focus on the things of God. The suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus are necessary. He must go through these things. That is not the necessity of blind fate. It is not even the necessity of an inner compulsion, though that was certainly there also. Rather, this is necessary because it is the Father’s will. It is the plan of the triune God from eternity, now being carried out by the obedient Son. This is the redemption prophesied throughout the Old Testament, pictured in the sacrifice of Able, seen in the covenantal faithfulness to Noah, the heart of the blessing of the nations promised to Abraham, put into concrete form in the intercessory work of the priests, illustrated in the lives of the judges and kings, and included in the prophetic writings. This is the redemption of which Isaiah sang, and it must be carried out. “Our Lord most plainly teaches that His suffering and death are in their deepest significance necessary for the sake of God, even before they come under consideration as to their effect upon man. . . . Jesus accepted the cross out of a motive of love for God even more than, and before He accepted it because of His love for man. His submission to the cross was a supreme act of religious devotion.” (Geerhardus Vos, The Self-Disclosure of Jesus, pages 279, 280) Peter has in mind the things of men. He is thinking of how the messiahship impacts men. Isn’t that often the focus of churches in our North American culture? And when we examine our own hearts, isn’t it easy to think of ourselves, our own needs, our own preferences when we think about church. Jesus’ focus is on his Father in heaven. Obedience to God is what Jesus has in mind. At the very heart of the story of redemption is not, first of all, needy sinners being saved, but rather, God receiving glory and honor. When that is central, then the rest falls into place. And it is precisely that God-centered character of the redemptive work that summons you to a self-sacrificing trust, to a whole-life commitment.
A church built by Christ himself, so powerful that it won’t be overcome by the gates of Hades — that seems too wonderful to believe, until you realize, as you listen to Jesus explaining it, how the Messiah is going to accomplish this.