The Local Church and Missions: 3 Lessons from Matthew 16:13-20 (Part 1)

This is the first of a multi-part series by Dr. Miles considering the role that the local church ought to play in missions from a biblical perspective.

Why is it that parachurch organizations typically lead in the training, sending, guiding, managing, and pastoring of missionaries, while local churches are willing and happy to let them do so? Surely there are plenty of practical reasons for the rise of parachurch sending organizations. Pooling of financial and training resources in parachurch organizations allows small churches to participate in missionary endeavors that would be almost impossible for them if they had to act by themselves. Further, students of church history will point out that it was the failure of local churches to send such missionary heroes as William Carey and Hudson Taylor that led to the rise of “parachurch” sending organizations (e.g., Baptist Missionary Society and China Inland Mission). Some might even argue that the subsequent rise of the modern missions movement was because of the creation of such organizations. But should arguments of utility and history carry the day when it comes to the mission of the church? Is the issue decided or is there room for evaluation?

More fundamentally, does the Bible say anything about the role that the local church ought to play in missions at the leadership and congregational level? Over the next few weeks, I would like to summarize some preliminary investigations into these questions.

The words of Jesus are foundational, and we begin with his interchange with Peter in Matthew 16:13-20. This is a seminal passage on missions and the church because it follows Peter’s confession of Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the Living God” (16:16), it is the first place in the New Testament where we encounter the term ecclesia (commonly translated “church”), and that usage comes as Jesus describes what he is creating this ecclesia to do.

Jesus had asked his disciples a seemingly innocuous question: “Who do people say that the Son of Man is” (16:13)? The disciples were all too eager to respond, because there was really nothing on the line. To answer, they needed only to stick their finger into the air to discern which way the fickle winds of public opinion were blowing. It took no commitment whatsoever to answer that question.

Interestingly, all the opinions shared of Jesus were complimentary and demonstrated that Jesus did enjoy some popularity with the populace. Jesus was either John the Baptist returned from the dead, Elijah, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets. Whatever the response, there were some commonalities: All were complimentary (to be associated with Jeremiah or Elijah is no mean praise), all thought him to come from God, but all were insufficient.

At that point, Jesus asked a question that still echoes through the portals of heaven across time to the present day: “What about you – who do you say that I am?” Now the question was altogether different, because it was personal. Now the finger was pointed squarely at the disciples and there was no place to go. There was no escape from the confrontation. Peter spoke up on behalf of the disciples: “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus joyfully pronounced Peter blessed for his confession. The confession came not from flesh and blood, but from God the Father. Jesus then renamed the confessor (“You are Peter”) and declared “on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of [Hades] shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” (16:18-19).

I grant that Jesus is hardly developing a full-blown ecclesiology or missiology in this passage, nor is he parsing distinctions between the local and universal church. However, the following observations are relevant for the local church to consider when developing a missions strategy.

The Church is to be a Confessing Institution

It is no accident that Jesus’ commitment to build his church immediately followed Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. Whereas the populace’s answers of Elijah or Jeremiah were complimentary, only the confession that Jesus is the Christ speaks to the identity of Jesus in a sufficient manner. It is Jesus the Christ who came in fulfillment of prophecy to save the people of God. It is Jesus the Christ who came and inaugurated the long-awaited Messianic era, the Kingdom of God. It is Jesus the Christ who came to atone for the sins of the world and rise on the third day, victorious over death. It is Jesus the Christ who ascended to the right hand of the Father, sending the Spirit to carry out his purposes on earth. And it is Jesus the Christ who will one day return to consummate his Kingdom and judge the living and the dead.

To name Jesus the Christ, the Anointed One of God, is to confess Jesus to be the very center of God’s redemptive purposes. All other names are insufficient because no other name captures the totality of Jesus’ person and mission. To name Jesus anything else, no matter how complementary (“good teacher,” “great example,” “spiritual leader,” “prophet sent from God,” etc.), while denying or ignoring his messianic status, is not to come close but barely miss. It is to deny that Jesus is who he claims to be and to deny the redemptive purposes of God. Peter, by revelation of God, confessed Jesus to be the Christ and it was upon “this rock” that Jesus promised to build his church. The church originated at the point of profession that Jesus is the Christ and it would be given a mission to take that announcement to the world. When the Church ceases to confess, profess, or proclaim that Jesus is the Christ, it ceases to be the Church. Mission, characterized by gospel proclamation, is in the DNA of the Church.

The Church Belongs to Jesus and He will Build It

The Church belongs to Jesus, a community of people that is owned by and built by Jesus. All aspects of the church’s mission, even the smallest details, are to be submitted to his lordship.

Further, Jesus promised that he would build his church. Therefore, growth of the church does not ultimately depend upon the cleverness of evangelism strategies, the size of a church’s missions budget, or heartfelt concern for social justice ministries (though such things can certainly be used of God). Rather, growth of Jesus’ church depends upon Jesus, the Good Shepherd, calling his sheep who will hear his voice and come (John 10:14-30). The “success” of any local church’s missions strategy depends entirely upon whether it is willing to be, or send and support those who will be, the voice of the Shepherd. This is done through the proclamation of the gospel, that others may recognize the voice of their shepherd and confess with all God’s people that Jesus is the Christ.

Entrance to the Kingdom Runs through the Jesus’ Church

After Peter’s confession, Jesus declared to him, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom.” There has been much ink spilled on determining what the “keys of the kingdom” are, but for now it is relevant to merely point out that the path to the Kingdom of God runs through the church. This is an unpopular claim because the implications run contrary to our society’s universalistic, pluralistic, and inclusivistic impulses. The words of Jesus are clear. The keys of the Kingdom have been given to the church. People therefore enter the Kingdom in precisely the same manner that they enter the church: through confession that Jesus is the Christ.

The implications for the mission of the church are enormous. Jesus must be preached in all of his particularity. Denying his exclusive claims by speculating on salvific possibilities for the unevangelized will not help the cause of missions. Nor will attempts to restore or bring about the Kingdom through social justice ministries, especially when there is no gospel proclamation. Jesus’ Kingdom ministry was characterized by word and deed – healing, exorcizing, and feeding always accompanied by preaching (see Luke 4:14-44). The missionary endeavors of the church should be characterized by the same. In particular, the church must resist the impulse to engage in the deeds of the Kingdom without identification with the King of the Kingdom. Entrance into the Kingdom runs through Jesus, and his name must be proclaimed.


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About Todd Miles

Dr. Todd Miles is the Director of the Master of Theology Program and Associate Professor of Theology at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon. Before his doctoral studies Todd was a Research Engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory for ten years. Now Todd teaches Systematic Theology, Hermeneutics, and Ethics at Western Seminary. Todd serves as an elder at Hinson Memorial Baptist Church in Portland and is the author of "A God of Many Understandings? The Gospel and Theology of Religions" (Nashville: B&H, 2010).