Jesus and his disciples are about 150 miles north of Jerusalem—a long way to walk in a hot and dusty world. They are near the city of Caeserea Philippi, which had been renamed a few years earlier to commemorate the death of Caesar Augustus. Caesar Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, a man declared to be a god by Rome. And that would have made Caesar Augustus the son of the god Julius. In fact, Caesar Augustus was often referred to as the “son of the god, Julius.”
Why this bit of intriguing background? Well, it was at this location that Jesus asks two now-famous questions of his disciples: Who do people say that I am? And they threw back some answers they had heard around town. Then Jesus queried, “But who do you say I am?” And Peter finally blurts out, "You are the Messiah, the son of the living God.” Yeah, Julius Caesar?. . . god?. . . Uh, he’s dead, man. And the son of Julius Caesar? Uh, he’s dead, too. But Jesus, you are something different. You are the son of a living God. And Jesus tells him that it was such a good answer that God the Father must have told him. Jesus then declares, “And on this rock I will build my church."
Protestants and Catholics love to debate what the rock was, but I think the more important thing is the prediction Jesus made right there—that he would build his church. A pretty bold claim, considering that there was just Jesus and a few disciples, and they were pretty much fugitives. But there sat the claim—I will build my church. Later, when one of those disciples, Matthew, penned this story, he used a very specific Greek word for what Jesus said he was going to build: ecclesia. Now that word does not mean a building, or an organization, or an institution. It was a common Greek term that meant a gathering, an assembly, or a congregation. Jesus predicted a people, not a building.
Fast forward. Jesus is ultimately crucified, dead, buried, and then rises from the dead. Oh, yes, fulfilling another bizarre prediction Jesus had made. And then, after hanging around with his followers for several weeks, he gathers his people, his church, together and tells them this: "All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me." "Ok, Jesus that sounds strange, but I suppose if you can predict your own death and resurrection and pull it off, we’re at least listening. But, seriously, all authority in heaven and earth is yours?" "Yep. All of it. And because I have all authority to do anything I want to do, and all authority to ask you all to do anything, here’s what I want you to do—go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, and surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Alright! Road trip! I think that would have gotten them pretty pumped up, except for one thing. Jesus then ascends into heaven and disappears. 'Like, where’d he go?” “I dunno, dude. He was supposed to be with us, but then he left.” Baffled, they all return to Jerusalem and wonder what’s up. That changed when the Holy Spirit descends and imbeds himself in them and gives them instant and continual access to Jesus Himself. And they throw open the doors and flood into the streets, proclaiming Jesus is risen. And people start believing, thousands and thousands of them in Jerusalem alone. Word spreads to neighboring communities in what we call today Israel and the West Bank. This annoys Jewish leaders and the Roman authorities. Persecution breaks out, and many of these new Christians are forced to flee to cities all over the Roman Empire. Things looked bad, but Christian scattered here and there? Just tilling the soil for the spread of the good news of Jesus.
Enter Saul of Tarsus, a Jew on the leading edge of that persecution. He is on the road to Damascus in pursuit of Christians, a mission interrupted with Jesus Himself appears to him. And Saul becomes the Apostle Paul, with a goal from God to take the show on the road. And does he! Paul spends the next 30 years starting churches in cities all around the Mediterranean Rim. He is finally arrested by Emperor Nero’s henchmen and brought to Rome, where he no doubt knows he will be executed. And my guess is that Paul may have wondered, “Did anything I did matter? Will they do to the rest of the people of Jesus what they did to Jesus and are about to do to me? Were we crazy to think the church could survive the Roman Empire and spread to all the nations?” And one morning, probably before sunrise, he hears the footsteps of the praetorian guard coming down the stone steps. They open his cell and lead him out to what would be his last sunrise on earth, maybe with those questions still haunting him.
But what if you and I could walk with Paul those last steps. As they marched him through the Roman forum, what if we could tell him, “Paul, it worked! It really did! We’re from the future, and you’re going to find this hard to believe right now. But a day is coming when this city that’s adorned with the icons of Roman gods will be adorned with the icons of Jesus Christ, your savior and ours. On tops of building all across this city will be crosses that remind people of one single crucifixion—that of Jesus. And Paul, over there where Nero’s circus was, where Christians would be torn apart by wild animals, where Nero would impale Christians on stakes, put tar in their hair and light them on fire? You won’t believe this, but right there will be a magnificent building in honor of your friend, Peter. And Paul, someday, millions of people will come here from all over the world, and they will ask to see where you are buried. One day, Paul, the Roman Empire will no longer exist, but Jesus people will meet in just about every major city in every country in the world. Paul, those letters you wrote, just hoping they would get to little Jesus gatherings God planted with you? They made it to their destinations. You knew you were writing God’s words, and they have been preserved through the ages. Not only that, they have been translated into 1,200 languages all over the world. Paul, one day, people will name their kids Peter and Paul and Andrew and Matthew and James and John; they will name their dogs Caesar and Nero.”
See, the prediction of Jesus, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell will not overcome it” came true. And it’s still coming true. Jesus declared that these Jesus gatherings would serve as the epicenter of God’s activity on earth, and he has been with us, as he said he would, every step long the way. You and I have been invited to be a part of it all.
Yeah, we know the church hasn’t always gotten it right. Yeah, church history is filled with stories that are embarrassing. But, despite mans’ sin and failures, despite our inconsistency, the true church, Jesus followers, not only exists, but continues to grow.
What will you do with the invitation offered? Can I plead with you to take the next step? Maybe it’s to continue to come and explore whether God is calling you to faith in Jesus Christ. Maybe it’s to place your faith in him because you’ve heard enough to know he is calling you to that. Maybe it’s to be baptized, obeying Jesus’ command to declare yourself to be his follower to the world. Maybe it’s to stop being a lone wolf Christian, unconnected to a local body of believers. Instead, pick one and get connected; grow to be all God has designed for you as hundreds of millions of people through the ages have done.
Whatever your step is, just do it!
Check out our Startup Message Series here!