IS THE CHURCH THE BODY OF CHRIST SPOKEN OF IN MATTHEW 16:18?
by Shawn Brasseaux
While we will always be grateful to the late Dr. Cyrus Ingerson (“C. I.”) Scofield (1843–1921) for recovering numerous dispensational Bible truths that were lost to many centuries of church tradition, and for his bold stand in teaching many of these precious truths in the form of the first edition (1909) and second and final edition (1917) of the Scofield Study Bible in a time when dispensational Bible study was rarer than it was today, we simply cannot agree this dear brother’s view of Matthew 16:18. Please note that I will have to get technical to answer the question, but I trust I will be able to reduce it all to layman’s terms by the end of the study!
We begin by quoting the passage, Matthew 16:16-18: “ And Simon Peter answered and said, Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God.  And Jesus answered and said unto him, 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 also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”
Verse 18 is the first time that the word “church” appears in the New Testament (or even in the entire Bible for that matter). It is quite unfortunate that the only “church” most people know of in Scripture is the Church the Body of Christ—similarly, the only “baptism” most know of in Scripture is water baptism! The thoughtful Bible student cannot and will not arrive at such a conclusion that there is only one church in Scripture; it is an easily demonstrable fact that there is more than one “church” in the Bible.
For example, Acts 7:38 says: “This is he, that was in the church in the wilderness with the angel which spake to him in the mount Sina, and with our fathers: who received the lively oracles to give unto us:” Now, was the Church the Body of Christ with Moses out in the wilderness at Mount Sinai? No, such a notion would be silly, utterly ridiculous. The “church” of Acts 7:38 is the nation Israel, a “called-out assembly” delivered from Egypt. Just as we would be unwise in claiming that the “church” in Acts 7:38 is the Church the Body of Christ, we would be unwise in automatically assuming that the “church” of Matthew 16:18 is the Church the Body of Christ.
It is a commonly-held view that as soon as we move from Genesis through Malachi and reach the book of Matthew, we begin “Christianity” as we know it. This is because it is normally assumed that Jesus Christ founded Christianity during His earthly ministry, Matthew through John (as we will see later, even Scofield did not believe that the Church the Body of Christ existed in Matthew through John). However, these are nothing more than the result of placing church tradition above the Scriptures. Christianity does not begin until the Apostle Paul’s ministry, some four years after the earthly ministry of Jesus began. If we could just understand that Christianity began when the ascended, risen, and glorified Lord Jesus Christ revealed to the Apostle Paul the information for this dispensation, we would never see ourselves in Matthew through John, and we would never try to place ourselves into the Four Gospels. We would never look for our doctrine, duty, walk, or destiny in Matthew through John. This was Christ’s earthly ministry to Jews only (Matthew 10:5-7; Matthew 15:24; John 4:22; Acts 3:25-26; Romans 15:8)—the Bible is so clear that Matthew through John was not spoken to the Body of Christ and was not spoken to Gentiles. Period.
We can now critically examine Dr. Scofield’s view regarding Matthew 16:18. For the paragraph heading of verses 17-20, he has the following title: “First mention of the church.” This ambiguity makes the Bible less clear than it is. As we already stated, there is more than one church in the Bible, so to simply refer to something as “the church” without qualification is not to distinguish the different churches in Scripture, and it further reinforces the erroneous idea that there is only one church in the Bible. The same could be said about calling the Dispensation of Grace “the Church Age”—there are actually three churches in Scriptures, so “the Church Age” is a misnomer.
In his study Bible, Dr. Scofield has the following footnote attached to Matthew 16:18: “Gr. ecclesia (ek = “out of,” kaleo = “to call”), an assembly of called-out ones. The word is used of any assembly; the word itself implies no more, as, e.g., the town-meeting at Ephesus (Acts 19. 39), and Israel, called out of Egypt and assembled in the wilderness (Acts 7. 38). Israel was a true ‘church,’ but not in any sense the N.T. church—the only point of similarity being that both were “called out” and by the same God. All else is contrast. See Acts 7. 38, note; Heb. 12. 23, note.”
Notice how Dr. Scofield did notice Israel as being a “church” (we would call it the “Mosaic Church,” since Moses led it in the wilderness). Yet, again, he is assuming that there is something called “the N.[ew]T.[estament] church,” and that we the Church the Body of Christ are “the New Testament church.” This too is misleading, since the New Testament Scriptures (Matthew through Revelation) actually involve two churches—one is called “the Messianic Church” and the other is “the Church the Body of Christ.” To refer to merely “the New Testament Church” is not to differentiate or specify—would you be referring to the Messianic Church (believing Jews in the Four Gospels and early Acts) or the Mystery Church (the Body of Christ)? To add to the confusion, an assembly of believers who are obviously Jewish and who are doing Jewish things in Acts chapter 2, are understood to be the Church the Body of Christ. To say that the “church” of Acts 2:47 is the Body of Christ is to again confound the differences between Israel and the Body of Christ. It only adds to the confusion that already abounds in Christendom.
At Ephesians 3:6, Dr. Scofield has this footnote: “That the Gentiles were to be saved was no mystery (Rom. 9. 24-33; 10. 19-21). The mystery “hid in God” was the divine purpose to make of Jew and Gentile a wholly new thing—“the church, which is [Christ’s] body,” formed by the baptized with the Holy Ghost (1 Cor. 12. 12,13) and in which the earthly distinction between Jew and Gentile disappears (Eph. 2. 14,15; Col. 3. 10,11). The revelation of this mystery, which was foretold but not explained by Christ (Mt. 16. 18), was committed to Paul. In his writings alone we find the doctrine, position, walk, and destiny of the church.”
Please note Dr. Scofield’s hybrid view—Jesus Christ predicted the Body of Christ in Matthew 16:18 but He did not explain it until Paul’s writings. This is a very dangerous view (as we will see later).
At this point, I should mention that I received the following email not too long ago in response to one of our Bible studies: “The church (i.e. the body of Christ) began at Pentecost. Jesus said he would build his church (Mt.16:18). He started building it at Pentecost by the Holy Spirit and later added the Gentiles by revelation to the apostles and prophets: Paul (Eph.3:6) and Peter in Acts 10.”
Dear readers, to even suggest—let alone believe—that God would speak about a Jew-and-Gentile body of believers to a group of Jews only, is nonsensical. Why would Jesus talk about a new body of believers (believing Jews and Gentiles reconciled in one body, the Body of Christ), to a group of Jews only (Matthew 15:24; John 4:22; Romans 15:8)? To make the “church” of Matthew 16:18 the Church the Body of Christ is to do great violence to the context of the verse, and introduce an enormous amount of confusion. We do not need to add to the mounting Bible ignorance.
We offer two simple keys to identifying the church of Matthew 16:18.
1. WHAT GOSPEL IS ASSOCIATED WITH THE CHURCH OF MATTHEW 16:18?
Peter’s profession in Matthew 16:16 is the first key to properly identifying the “church” of Matthew 16:18.
Matthew 16:16 is the famous confession of the Apostle Peter, where he publicly admitted that Jesus was “the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This is not the gospel by which we are saved today. It is the heart of the Gospel of the Kingdom, and the Gospel of the Kingdom is the foundation of what is called the “Messianic Church”—Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah.
Had Peter said, “Thou art Jesus Christ, who wilt die for our sins, who wilt be buried, and who wilt be raised again the third day,” we would be more convinced that the “church” of Matthew 16:18 could be a reference to the Church the Body of Christ. Peter did not say anything about Calvary in that verse. The only foundation on which the Church the Body of Christ is built is Christ crucified, and Peter made no reference to Calvary’s cross in Matthew 16:18. The different gospel of Matthew 16:16 is our first reason to not believe that Matthew 16:18 is the Church the Body of Christ.
2. WHAT DOES “THE GATES OF HELL SHALL NOT PREVAIL AGAINST IT,” MEAN?
The phrase “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” is the second key to properly identifying the “church” of Matthew 16:18. This phraseology does not make much sense in our day and age, but it fits perfectly in the ages to come, when the gates of hell are opened and Satan’s creatures are released from the bottomless pit.
During the seven-year Tribulation, Satan’s policy of evil will reach its climax, its zenith, its ultimate pinnacle. Hell itself, particularly working through the Antichrist and his regime and religion, will do everything it can to stamp out the Jewish believing remnant. The Antichrist will systematically exterminate the Jewish race (any Jews who do not cooperate with him, worship him, accept his mark, et cetera). We read about those “beheaded for the witness of Jesus” (Revelation 20:4). The Antichrist will make war with the Jewish saints and overcome them by killing them (Revelation 13:5-8)—he will execute anyone who does not follow his evil world religion (verse 15). Jesus talked about how His believing Jews would be persecuted, imprisoned, and killed for His sake (Matthew 10:16-42). The Antichrist will “wear out the saints” (Daniel 7:25) and he will “destroy the mighty and the holy people” (Daniel 8:24).
As long as Israel is polluted with false idols and evil spirits, or even destroyed (annihilated from off the face of the planet), God cannot fulfill prophecy because prophecy depends on the existence of the nation Israel. Satan attempted to destroy the nation Israel many times in history. Pharaoh killed all of the male babies in Egypt, in the time when Moses was born. The Devil tried to destroy the nation Israel in Queen Esther’s reign. Satan attempted to destroy the Messiah by killing the babies two and under in Judaea during Herod’s reign. So, the Antichrist will again try to wipe out Israel, to no avail. A Jewish remnant will be living at Christ’s return, as Jesus told them that the gates of hell would not prevail against them. Even those Jews who have died for Christ during the Tribulation, Jesus Christ will resurrect them when He returns (Revelation 20:4-6).
“Alas! for that day is great, so that none is like it: it is even the time of Jacob’s [Israel’s] trouble; but he shall be saved out of it” (Jeremiah 30:7). Despite everything that will happen, God still promises to save a believing remnant of Israel during that seven-year Tribulation!
REPLY TO DR. SCOFIELD’S ARGUMENT ABOUT THE VERB TENSE OF MATTHEW 16:18
In his 64-page booklet, first printed in 1896, “Rightly dividing the Word of Truth,” Dr. Scofield states the following:
“Further, Scripture shows [the Bible student] that neither Israel nor the Church always existed. Each had a recorded beginning. That of Israel he finds in the call of Abram. Looking then for the birth of the Church he finds (contrary, perhaps, to his expectations, for he has probably been taught that Adam and the Patriarchs are in the Church) that it certainly did not exist before, nor during, the earth-life of Christ, for he finds Him speaking of His Church as yet future when he says (Matt. 16:18), ‘Upon this rock I WILL build my Church.’ Not ‘have built,’ nor ‘am building,’ but ‘WILL build.’ He finds, too from Eph. 3:5-10, that the Church is not once mentioned in Old Testament prophecy, but was, in those ages, a mystery ‘hid in God.’ Scripturally, he finds the birth of the Church in Acts 2, and the termination of its career on the earth in 1 Thess. 4.”
Firstly, we certainly disagree with Dr. Scofield that “the birth of the Church [is] Acts 2.” There is abundant proof in Scripture that the Church of Acts 2 and the Church the Body of Christ are two separate entities—please see our study at the end of this article that discusses 12 reasons why the Church the Body of Christ did not begin in Acts chapter 2.
Scofield claims that Matthew 16:18 is the future Church the Body of Christ by pointing out that the term “will build” in Matthew 16:18 is future tense. He argues that since Jesus said, “I will build my church” and not “I am building my church,” the church spoken of it Matthew 16:18 was a future church not a church present when He spoke. In other words, Scofield disagrees with the Messianic Church being the church of Matthew 16:18. However, again, the word “church” in Matthew 16:18 is to be understood in light of Acts 2:47. The church that Jesus said He would build in Matthew 16:18 is the church He later built in Acts chapter 2. So, the words “I will build my church” are to be understood in light of believing Israel of Acts chapter 2—it was on that day some 3,000 Jews were repentance and water baptized in the name of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:41). Acts chapter 2 is clearly Jewish and Matthew 16:18 is clearly Jewish, so to make them the Body of Christ is to ignore that these two passages describe one church—the Messianic Church—and that church is separate and distinct from the Church the Body of Christ.
Jesus supposedly predicted the Church the Body of Christ in Matthew 16:18 but He revealed to Paul some time later. This is an unsound approach to the Bible.
There should always be a very clear distinction between Christ’s earthly ministry and Paul’s ministry. If we start reading ourselves into the Four Gospels in just one passage, then we put ourselves on a slippery slope of claiming everything in the Four Gospels is related to us. Who’s to say that if Jesus spoke of but did not reveal the Church the Body of Christ in His earthly ministry, what else did He speak of that related to us that we have to go back and find in those Matthew-John passages? In other words, we could validly argue that maybe Jesus also spoke of the rapture in His earthly ministry but that He did not reveal it until Paul either. Maybe Jesus in the Four Gospels also talked about justification by faith in Him alone without works, but did not reveal that doctrine fully until we came to Paul. Maybe He in His earthly ministry spoke of Israel’s fall and salvation going to the Gentiles without Israel, but did not fully reveal it until Paul. On and on we could go, and we would just add to the great Bible confusion already present in Christendom. In fact, Matthew 16:18 is so Jewish in nature, to say that it is the Church the Body of Christ is to then give opportunity for the replacement-theology proponents to argue that we have replaced Israel (because we would be stealing Israel’s passages and claiming them for ourselves anyway)!
The “church” of Matthew 16:18 is the Messianic Church, Jews who had recognized Jesus as Messiah, Christ, the Son of God—the profession that Peter made in verse 16. It is on that profession of faith of Peter that the Messianic Church rests. Matthew 16:18 and Acts 2:47 have nothing to do with us. Matthew 16:18 is not the Roman Catholic Church and it is not the Church the Body of Christ (the two most common views of the verse). To find ourselves in these passages is to find ourselves confused, and thus find ourselves outside of God’s will. Yes, it is that serious, so we had better “search and see” before believing any study Bible notes anywhere. The Church the Body of Christ was not spoken of until Jesus Christ first revealed it to the Apostle Paul. There is no Church the Body of Christ in Matthew through John at all, in hidden language or in plain language.
May we have joy and peace in believing, Romans through Philemon God’s Word to us (Romans 15:13), and may we toss out that which is superfluous!