Sabbath School Today
With the 1888 Message Dynamic
The Book of Matthew
Lesson 8: "Peter and the Rock"
The immense prestige and power asserted in the Temple in Jerusalem commanded the devotion of the multitudes when Jesus faced them and said, "Behold, your house is left unto you desolate" (Matt. 23:38), but a still small voice in the Bible story of Jesus of Nazareth intrudes upon the conscience. These teachings of Jesus call for our reverent attention today.
He waited until very near the end of His three and one-half years of ministry before He challenged His disciples with the ultimate question: "Whom say ye that I am?" (Matt. 16:15). They were clear that He is the long-awaited Messiah, but who is He?
God wants all of us to have perfect freedom to decide about Him. We read in Matthew 16:13 that Christ asked the disciples, "Whom do men say that I, the Son of man am?" The disciples replied that the people were divided about Him. Some said He was John the Baptist come back from the dead, or the prophet Jeremiah, or another of the prophets. John tells us that some of the people said, "He is a good man: others said, Nay; but he deceiveth the people" (John 7:12). It's somewhat like it is today, isn't it? "There was a division among the people because of Him" (John 7:43).
But when Jesus asked the disciples, "Whom say ye that I am?" they were silent for a moment, and it seemed that no one dared to speak. They had often wondered just who He was. They saw that no other man was like Him. What amazed them was not so much the miracles that He performed, but the perfect love expressed in everything that He said and did. Finally Peter spoke up for the group: "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Matt. 16:16).
Jesus congratulated him for the courage of his convictions, "Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but My Father which is in heaven. And I say unto thee, that thou art Peter [petros], and upon this rock [petra; rock solid truth as massive as Pre-Cambrian granite] I will build My church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (vss. 17, 18).
Petros is a little stone one can throw around; petra is the foundation rock which is Christ Himself. After poor unstable Peter had denied Christ three times and thus disqualified himself from being an apostle, he repented. Any thought that he was important was given up: he told the church of his day that Christ only is "the Rock" (1 Peter 2:8, petra). He knew he was nothing more than a petros.
Has the Lord's Church Always Been an Organized Body?
The beginnings of the true church can be traced to the everlasting (or new) covenant that the Lord made with Abraham long ago: "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee. And I will make of thee a great nation, ... and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 12:1-3). Thus the Lord began to organize His people to be a denominated, visible family, a "nation." His purpose: that they witness in the world.
Abraham's descendants were elected to be the ancient equivalent of today's organized church. They were publicly to share and exemplify his faith. Their nationhood was to demonstrate that it is possible for human beings to function in an organized unity, perfectly devoted to the Lord's guidance.
That nation came to be known as Israel. Her history records a series of ups and downs, with many dark episodes of corporate failure. (The "downs" were the direct result of the old covenant idea they had embraced on their own.) But did her terrible backslidings cancel the original election of God? The answer has to be no.
Although they were severely punished for their apostasies (especially Baal-worship), neither Israel nor Judah ever became Babylon. Even while they were captives in Babylon they remained Israel. Baal-worship was a disease that afflicted the body but did not transform it into Babylon.
Who Is "Israel" Today?
At the beginning of His ministry Christ selected disciples and ordained them, disciplining them to proclaim the gospel to the world. "'He ordained twelve.'... The first step was now to be taken in the organization of the church that after Christ's departure was to be His representative on earth" (Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, pp. 290, 291). "On this rock [their expressed faith in Him] I will build My church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it" (Matt. 16:18). He commissioned them to be a disciplined, unified "body": "As the Father has sent Me, even so send I you" (John 20:21-23). They were not a disjointed scattering of "faithful souls." The Holy Spirit continued to organize and to lead the members toward perfect unity and cohesion.
When the Jews finally crucified Christ and rejected His apostles in 34 A.D., the Lord did not abandon His original covenant; He permitted a "shaking" to test His professed people. Two groups became distinguished and separated. The believing ones among them remained as His true church, and the unbelievers were shaken out. To the unbelieving Jews the Lord had to say, "The kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth [bearing] the fruits thereof" (Matt. 21:43). The "nation" was the church continuing as the true Israel.
Also in 34 A.D., the physical nation of Israel was rejected, but the true Israel repented at Pentecost because of faith in Christ, for "if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise" (Gal. 3:29). That's how these contrite believers became the new Israel, the church, the true "nation bearing the fruits." The church was not an appendage or offshoot from Israel; it was the true descendants of Abraham (Matt. 21:42-45, etc.).
It is generally agreed among us that the modern Seventh-day Adventist Church has seriously repeated the history of ancient Israel. Ellen White often said that our "in-a-great-measure" rejection of the 1888 message over a century ago was a replay of the Jews' rejection of Christ.
But our 1888 history is different than that of the apostles—the apostles and church elders were responsive to the Holy Spirit's leading. What "the Holy Spirit said" to us we didn't do! But now the time has come when we must respond as promptly to His leading as the apostles did. The same Holy Spirit who organized the apostles is still alive today.
What Keeps the Church Together
When the early church functioned as a body in disciplined coordination under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the Lord respected its organization. For example, when Saul of Tarsus was converted, the Lord brought him into immediate fellowship with His organized church.
The idea is beautiful Good News. Christ being the "head," each believer is automatically an important and functioning member of the body. No political or other human organization can enjoy such perfect unity where each member sees himself as especially created to fill a need. Nothing nurtures it like living membership in the "body of Christ." Every believing person discovers therein to his everlasting joy his true sense of self-identity and fulfillment.
Well over a hundred years after Minneapolis and 1888, the time has come for us to fulfill Paul's vision of a perfectly coordinated church where every member feels needed. For nearly two thousand years Paul's picture of genuine, lasting "church growth" has been awaiting its full realization:
"We should no longer be children tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, ... but, speaking the truth in love [agape], may grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love [agape]" (Eph. 4:14-16, NKJV).
It's natural for some to fear that the church and its institutions are now too big and complicated ever to be successful. But the Bible gives no hint that the growth of the body makes difficult or impossible the Holy Spirit's work. Overall, the idea is that what will unify the church is pure, unadulterated truth promulgated wholeheartedly and unreservedly by its leadership. What happened in 1888 must be replayed, but this time in sanctified reverse.
—From the writings of Robert J. Wieland