In Matthew 16.15-18 Jesus engaged his disciples in a discussion of his identity. But as his response to their confession that he was the Son of God, he turned the conversation to a Bible truth of fundamental importance – both then and now:
… on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. – Matthew 16.18
In Part 1 we noted several metaphors from scripture that give us some sense of what this church really is. We noted that the Greek word ekklesia means “assembly” – so the church is a gathering of people. It is not a church building, or an institution, or an organization. The church is people.
In this second part we advance the idea of one of the two senses in which the church is discussed in the Bible. Here we consider the church in the universal sense – that is, when Jesus said he would build his church, he was referring to people who would become his disciples throughout the ages, not limited to a certain location or time. All of these people God would add to the church (Acts 2.47), in all places, throughout all time. The Hebrew writer talks about church as a kingdom that cannot shaken, writing this:
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. – Hebrews 12.22-24
The church includes “the assembly of the firstborn” and the “spirits of the righteous made perfect” by the blood of Jesus. This is describing Christians – those whom Jesus washed and cleansed of their sins by his own blood, and whom God added to his church. It is not limited to a time or place – it is all the disciples, all those saved, at any point or place in time. This is the church that Jesus built – and continues to build today as more people are saved.
What is the universal church?
We may note several important characteristics of this universal church.
- There is only one – As we noted in the previous article, Paul wrote that the church is Jesus’ body (Ephesians 1.22-23). He says later in the same letter:
There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call – one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. – Ephesians 4.4-6
Only one body, Paul says. This body – the same writer says in the same letter, is the church. Jesus said he would build his church, not his churches. Those who are added by God, Luke writes in Acts 2.47, are added “to the church” (singular).
- The church started at Pentecost – This is after the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
Luke records the events of that day in Acts 2.1-47, the culmination of which – after the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles, after Peter preached, after the Jews responded to Peter’s command to repent and be baptized (v.38) – is that God added those who obeyed to the church. This is the first time anything like this happened in human history.
- Entrance is by God’s adding – One cannot “join” Jesus’ church. It is not a human decision who gets into Jesus’ church.
Clearly in Acts 2.41,47, the ones who heard Peter’s sermon and responded in obedience to what Peter told them to do (v.37-38), were added by God to the church. The apostles didn’t take a vote; the other members didn’t hold a secret ballot; God added those who obeyed and were saved by the blood of Jesus, having their sins forgiven.
- The Lord keeps the membership – As we noted previously in Hebrews 12, enrollment is kept in heaven, not in some agency on earth.
This only follows logically that if God adds people to Jesus’ church, then he knows – and he alone knows – who is actually in Jesus’ church. Paul told the young preacher Timothy:
The Lord knows those who are his. – 2 Timothy 2.19
- The church consists of all the saved – The church, the body of Jesus, is holy and will be presented to the Father without blemish. Those who are sinning and don’t repent will be cast out.
Paul wrote to the Roman church, warning both Gentile and Jewish converts:
Then you (Gentiles) will say, ‘Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.’ This is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches (Jews), neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. – Romans 11.19-22
- One must be a member to be saved (or, put another way, those who are saved are members, because God adds them) – Jesus is the savior of his body (the church). Paul writes:
For the husband is the head of the wife even as Christ is the head of the church, his body, and is himself its Savior. – Ephesians 5.23
Since God adds to the church those who obey and become disciples, and Jesus is the Savior of the church (his body), it is not possible to be saved and not be in the universal church (the assembly of all who are saved).
- The church has no earthly organization – What organization that exists is spiritual in nature, because the body is spiritual in nature, made up of saved people. Again Paul writes in describing the church:
So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. – Ephesians 2.19-21
There are no earthly headquarters, no place of government, no organizational structure – the church of Jesus is his body of saved people, and it grows into a temple in the Lord. It’s pretty obvious this refers not to a literal temple, but to a spiritual entity comprised of people of a certain kind of heart.
- The church cannot be divided – Those who seek to divide the church through false teaching or bad conduct are simply cutoff by the head, Jesus.
As noted from Romans 11, when branches fall into unbelief, they are cut off by God – no person who is unfaithful to God can remain in the universal church, because God can, and does, remove them, not matter what actions man takes or fails to take.
- Death does not affect membership – The church in a universal sense is comprised of all the saved people, living and dead.
As noted in Hebrews 12, where the writer describes those who are part of this saved body, who have the assurance that their membership does not cease when they die – because it is their spirits (vs. 23) that are part of this assembly – not their physical bodies or lives. It includes those “enrolled in heaven“, not those enrolled on some membership list at a local congregation.
These traits of the universal church tell us that the church Jesus built, while comprised of people who obey during their lives on earth, is spiritual, eternal, and perfectly managed by God. In the next part of this series we will examine the traits of the church in a local, earthly sense.
May grace reign through righteousness in your life.
– Bo Couchman