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
Jesus’ statement was a confession on his part – a confession of his mission in coming to earth. It was to “build his church.” As the passage in Matthew reveals, the foundation of this church is the deity of Jesus – that he is the Son of God. (Contrary to some teaching, Jesus did not build the church “on Peter,” but rather, on Peter’s confession of Jesus’ true identity.) Jesus is the cornerstone of the church (Ephesians 5.21) – the apostles merely built onto the church that Jesus established (Ephesians 2.20). But there remain some important questions: What is the church? Who is part of it? How does one gain entry? And many others.
What is the church?
Jesus said he would build his church. So what did he build? The word for church in the New Testament is ekklesia, which simply means “assembly.” An assembly is merely a gathering of people called from their own personal abodes into some public place to be together. So the church of Jesus would be a gathering of his disciples, who are called “Christians” in the New Testament (Acts 11.26). There are other metaphors that broaden our understanding of what the church is. If we are part of the church, then we are part of these things as well.
- The Body of Christ – Paul writes in Ephesians 5.23,
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.
This describes the relationship the church enjoys with Jesus – he is its head, and it is his body. As the head, he has all authority (Matthew 28.18), and as members of the body, the church must work together (1 Corinthians 12.27, Romans 12.4-5).
- The House of God – the Hebrew writer says in Hebrews 3.6,
…but Christ is faithful over God’s house as a son. And we are his house if indeed we hold fast our confidence and our boasting in our hope.
This describes the family-type relationship the church enjoys with Jesus. Christians are brothers and sisters (Matthew 12.48-50), and are to treat each other as family (1 Timothy 5.1-2).
- The Temple of God – Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3.16,
Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?
This emphasizes that the church is part of a holy place or habitation of God. And because it is a holy assembly, Christians are to strive to be pure (note v.17). This is the place Christians come to worship and serve God (Ephesians 2.19-22, 1 Peter 2.5).
- The Kingdom of God – Jesus used this term interchangeably with “church” in the discussion in Matthew 16 with his disciples.
He said in verse 18 that he would build his church. Then in verse 19 he told the disciples he would give them the “keys to the kingdom” – it would be these special men of Jesus who would be responsible for advancing the church/kingdom after Jesus left the earth. Prophecies in Daniel 2 and in Joel 2 point to the establishment of this kingdom during the days of Jesus, and to the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, an event that Peter claimed was happening in Acts 2 in fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy about the kingdom of God. This emphasizes the authority of Jesus as King (Matthew 28.18-20). The church is merely subjects of the king, and under his total authority to rule in matters pertaining to his body.
- The Bride of Christ – Several passages allude to this relationship, including Ephesians 5.23-27, Revelation 19.7-9, 21.2,9, 2 Corinthians 11.2.
The church, as a bride, is betrothed to Jesus. This emphasizes the closeness and intimacy of the church to the Savior, and portends a greater relationship to come.
These ideas give us a better sense of the relationship between Jesus and the church he promised to build. In Part 2 we’ll consider one of the two senses in which the church is discussed in scripture: the church in a universal sense. And in Part 3 we’ll consider the other sense in which the church is discussed in scripture: the local congregation.
May grace reign through righteousness in your life.
– Bo Couchman