What is the Church?

The game of Chinese whispers illustrates what happens the further we get from the original source. The word ‘peanut butter’ can turn into something like ‘buffalo’ by the end. The word ‘church’ has unfortunately been the victim of such deterioration. As time goes on and we get further and further away from the start of the church and from the Word of God, church can become something entirely different from what it was originally intended to be.

So, let us go back to the original source. The first time the word ‘church’ occurs in the Bible is in Matthew 16.13-20, so this passage has some very important information for us as we seek to understand what ‘the church’ is.

Context of Matthew 16:13-20

It is very important to understand Matthew 16 in light of the context of the rest of the book. In the earlier parts of Matthew, Jesus is introduced as the promised and prophesied Messiah who has come to ‘save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21). Despite Jesus’ clear fulfilment of Old Testament prophesies and dominance over Satan, sickness, disease, and even the weather, most people in Israel rejected Jesus. Matthew 16 comes in the section where we see Israel rejecting Jesus (16:1-12).

In Matthew 16, Jesus asks His disciples what people are saying about Him. They respond that many people think He is one of the prophets. Then He asks them what they think. They respond by saying, ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!’ They get it. Jesus is far more than prophet. He is THE Prophet; the One to whom all other prophets were pointing. Jesus affirms the belief of the disciples expressed by Peter. He says that Peter is living up to his name (Petros = little rock) and that the foundation upon which He will build His church is Himself (Petra = the big rock). This leads us to our first truth about the church’s meaning:

1. The church is built on Jesus Christ.

Jesus is the foundation of the church. He used the apostles to help lay the foundation, but the chief corner stone is Christ Himself (Eph 2:19-20). The foundation stone that the apostles laid is the only one that can be laid – Jesus Christ (1 Cor 3:9-11). The birth, life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Christ form the basis for the very existence of the church. These are the core truths that undergird the church and must be held up by the church (1 Tim 3:14-16). Through His death, Jesus purchased the church with His own blood (Acts 20:28).

2. The church is a called out assembly.

The word ‘church’ is the Greek word ekklēsia that appears 115 times in the New Testament. 112 times it is translated ‘church’ and 3 times ‘assembly’. It comes from two Greek words ek (out of, out from, away from) and kaleō (to call) – meaning ‘a calling out’, a gathering or assembly of people called out for a meeting. In all but three places, this word is referring to the New Testament church which is called out from this world and called unto Christ.

So, Jesus says, ‘I am going to call out a group of people who will accept Me for who I am, as Messiah and Christ, as God’s Chosen Saviour and as Lord and God. Those who do will become part of my assembly, my called out ones’. (1 Cor 1:1-2)

This means that the church must assemble; it must gather. We cannot really be the church on our own. We can live out the things we learn in the church. We can carry out the mission of the church. But an assembly must assemble, and God wants us to be assembling together with other believers for mutual edification and encouragement (Hebrews 10:24-25)

3. The church was a new thing.

Notice in Matthew 16:18 that Jesus says, ‘I will build my church.’ This a future promise which means that Jesus is going to build His church in the future which obviously means that it was not currently in existence. There were other assemblies, most notably Israel, even described as “the church (assembly/congregation) in the wilderness” in Acts 7:38. But the called out assembly referred to in Matthew 16 is something that was not currently in existence. It was something that Jesus promised would come into existence and that He would build.

For further explanation of these truths, read Ephesians 2:11-22 which explains that the church is a new man that is made up of believing Jews and believing Gentiles. Also consider Ephesians 3:1-10 which tells us that the church is a mystery that was revealed and through which God will get great glory.

So, when did the church begin? It seems that in the gospels it was promised and still future. In the epistles, it has come and has begun. So it seems very likely, that it began at Pentecost, after Jesus’ resurrection, when He became the head of the church according to Ephesisans 1:19-23.

Note: The fact that the church is a new thing made up of believing Jew and believing Gentile does not mean that God is doing away with Israel or that the church has replaced Israel, it just means that God is making a new spiritual body of believers and immersing them into the body of Christ by the Holy Spirit at the moment of salvation (1 Cor 12:12-13). The three groups of Jew, Gentile, and church are kept distinct in the Bible (1 Cor 10:32). The following is an attempt to summaries Biblically how these groups developed

  • Before Abraham, there were only Gentiles.
  • After Abraham, there were Gentiles and Jews.
  • After the coming of Christ, there were Gentiles, Jews, and then a new body called the church.

4. The church will prevail.

In Matthew 16:18, Jesus emphasises that His church will be successful:

  • It is His church. He is the head of the church and it belongs to Him. Anything He is in charge of will succeed.
  • He promised to build His church. We may be used by God to perform a role in the church, but only Jesus can build the church. We cannot save anyone. We cannot change anyone. We cannot gift anyone or stir them up for service. All we can do is encourage, exhort, train, teach. We are labourers together with God (1 Cor 3:6-9).
  • The gates of hell shall not prevail against the church. Hell here is talking about ‘the realm of the dead’. Gates is referring to authority and power, because in those days the city gates were where important business was transacted. So the “gates of hell” symbolises the organised power of death and Satan (Hebrews 2:14).  Jesus knew that He was about to die (Matthew 16:21), but He also knew that He would rise again.  Satan and all of his forces did not want Jesus’s plan to prevail. But even when it looked like Jesus had lost, He rose again and destroyed the power of Satan (Col 2:10-15).

5. The church has great authority.

In Matthew 16:19, Jesus said that He would give to Peter the keys of the kingdom of heaven, so that what they bind [forbid] on earth would be bound [forbidden] in heaven and what they lose [permit] on earth would be loosed [permitted] in heaven. In other words, the church through the foundational ministry of Peter and the other apostles would reflect the will of God in heaven. The same thing is repeated about all the apostles in Matthew 18:18.

The idea is that the church is God’s organisation on earth and the church should be carrying out the will of God in heaven as found in God’s Word. The church is responsible to proclaim the good news about Jesus, to hold up the truth of God’s Word, to make disciples of all nations, and to establish other churches accessible to everyone on earth. And the authority to do this has been given to them by the highest authority in heaven and on earth – Jesus Christ! (Matthew 28:18-20)


So what is the church and what does it mean. From this passage we see:

  1. The church is built on Jesus Christ because of His work on the cross.
  2. The church is a group of people who have be saved and called out of this world to love and follow Jesus together as an group.
  3. The church is a new thing that is different from anything else that God has previously been doing including Israel, and it began after the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (probably at Pentecost).
  4. The church will prevail and succeed as evidenced by Christ’s victory over the devil and hell in His resurrection.
  5. The church has great authority on earth, carrying out the will of God on the earth in accordance with God’s Word.

Questions to Consider:

  • Are you a believer on Christ?
  • Have you obeyed the Lord Jesus and publicly declared your faith through baptism by immersion in the name of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost after salvation?
  • Are you involved in the church and committed to the church?
  • Are you confident about the future of the church?

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