What comes to mind when you read the promise of Jesus in Matt. 16:18 “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”? This is the first time the word “church” is used in the Bible. The only other time is found in the gospels is in Matthew 18:17. After the day of Pentecost it appears frequently in Acts and throughout the remainder of the New Testament. Just what was it Jesus was going to build?
We are going to have to have a little history lesson here before we can get to the real meaning of what Jesus promised to build in Matt. 16:18.
Actually the word “church” is not a translation of the word Jesus used. The word traces back to the 4th century and Roman Emperor Constantine. The pagan term, kuriakê oikia, “lord’s house” referred to the temple of the Sun God Mithras. In 313 in “the Edict of Milan,” Constantine, who never converted from Mithraism, legalized “Christianity.” His version of Christianity was nothing but Mithraism disguised as Christianity. It was from this “Christianized Kuriakê oikia/Lord’s house” that Roman Catholicism evolved (with December 25th, the birthday of the Sun God, being designated as the birthday of Jesus or Christmas. The word “kuriakê” eventually evolved into our English word “church.” Catholicism retained the word and passed it down to us via the Protestant Reformation.
Jesus used the Greek word, ecclesia, a word that means “called out” and refers to a group of people called out from the general populace for a special purpose. It was a common word when Jesus borrowed it to describe the people he was going to bring together on the foundation truth that he is the Son of God. The word didn’t even have a religious meaning to begin with. This word, kuriakê, has no relationship to the word we find in our Bibles. The tragic thing about this is that Bible translators, especially since the 1611 King James Version have almost uniformly used the word “church” instead of really translating the word Jesus and the apostles used in the New Testament. In fact, Archbishop Bancroft, the head of the Anglican Church specifically forbade the [KJV] translators to change many of the old “ecclesiastical” words like “baptism” (immerse) and “bishop” (overseer) for political reasons. Bancroft’s third rule required “the old ecclesiastical words to be kept, such as ‘church’ instead of ‘congregation.’” He also wanted the old offices of bishop, deacon, pastor to relate to their “most commonly used by the most eminent fathers” (rule four).
Take a look at a few versions which really translate the word Jesus used…
Matthew 16:18 (CJB) – “…and on this rock I will build my Community, (Complete Jewish Bible)
Matthew 16:18 (DARBY) – “…and on this rock I will build my assembly
Mattityahu 16:18 (OJB) – “…and upon this TSUR I will build my Kehillah, my Chavurah (the Community of Moshiach [Messiah, mr]) (Orthodox Jewish Bible).
Matthew 16:18 (YLT) – “…and upon this rock I will build my assembly, (Young’s Literal Translation)
Matthew 16:18 – “…but upon this foundation rock I will build my called-out people, (Hugo McCord’s Translation of the Everlasting Gospel [not online]).
These all are actual translations of the word ecclesia. The word refers to people who are in a relationship with one another by reason of being in a relationship with the Lord. The word church in its original usage referred to a building, a temple. It is still used that way by many people. Pointing to a building with a steeple on the top, they will say, “That is my church!” or, “Isn’t that a beautiful church!” “Church” eventually came to be thought of as an institution – an organizational entity with a treasury, a budget and a hierarchy to control not only the budget but the “members of the church,” the laity. Money and power are far and away the main reason for the hierarchy and clergy in churches to cling to their distinctive doctrines and practices. If people realized they can be the Lord’s special people without the institutional church, these would go out of business.
The word ecclesia describes a relationship. These people are called out of the world to the Lord and to his life. The people whom the Lord adds together form a community – a group of people who are united in their common faith and share life in common. They take care of the community and reach out into the larger community around them. They become a living demonstration of love and compassionate caring just like Jesus when he was on earth.
Look at this in practice in the book of Acts. In the 2nd chapter, immediately after Pentecost we see them functioning as a community.
“They continued faithfully in the teaching of the emissaries, [apostles, mr] in fellowship, in breaking bread and in the prayers. Everyone was filled with awe, and many miracles and signs took place through the emissaries. All those trusting in Yeshua stayed together and had everything in common; in fact, they sold their property and possessions and distributed the proceeds to all who were in need. Continuing faithfully and with singleness of purpose to meet in the Temple courts daily, and breaking bread in their several homes, they shared their food in joy and simplicity of heart, praising God and having the respect of all the people. And day after day the Lord kept adding to them those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47 CJB)
Do you think these people were worrying about getting the organization, work and worship of the “church” right? Or were they enjoying themselves in their fellowship with one another and taking care of one another? Would the community of believers profit from following the example of these believers? Would it be “scriptural” to do just what they did – minus the temple assemblies, of course? What are we missing by not living this way? Do we anywhere near approach this kind of joy among ourselves and respect from outside in what we do as “church” today? Do you suppose there would be daily additions as there was then?
“Oh! But they had the apostles right there to deliver the commands about how to worship and work and organize!” Well, why don’t we do what they did? Why not sell property and support the poor as the need presents itself as they did? Why not meet every day and break bread and eat in private homes with others of the community of believers as they did? This is as much an apostolically approved example as any other – maybe even more so. After all the apostles were right there! What right do we have to reject one example and accept another if not because one suits us and the other doesn’t? If one is binding, why are not all binding?
When Paul wrote to the Ephesian saints he reminded those from a Gentile background that before they became Christians they had been “…separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” (Eph. 2:12). That word, commonwealth expresses the idea we are considering here. After their conversion Paul told “ … you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God,” (Ephesians 2:19). Citizens of what? Citizens of a new commonwealth – the new Israel. A commonwealth is usually a political community founded for the common good. The states of Kentucky and Virginia are described as commonwealths. The ecclesia of Christ is a spiritual commonwealth/community that exists for the common good.
There is something else we can – and must – learn about this community of believers. As they/we are being built together, they/we are becoming a temple – a holy, set apart, devoted temple for a dwelling place for God in the Spirit. This is a new temple – a new creation, harking back to the original temple – the first creation.
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens (of the commonwealth) 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. In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.” (Eph. 2:19-22).
Now remember the story. What was the creation God brought about in Genesis 1? Was it not his temple in which he was to dwell in his creation? Man was to dwell with him and fulfill the purpose for which he was created – to co-rule in creation with the Creator. Here we find a new temple and a new dwelling place for God. God dwells in this temple in the person of the Spirit. The new mankind, represented by the man, Christ Jesus, is the new temple in which God dwells.
There are those who maintain that the Spirit only dwells representatively in the church and in the Christian. But that does not fit the description here and elsewhere in the New Testament. Here is what Paul says about the temple of God – the ecclesia – and those who were creating problems among them in Corinth…
“Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy him. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple.” (1 Cor. 3:16-17).
Paul, in introducing the true God to the idolatrous Athenians said…
“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” (Acts 17:24-25).
Wonder why, then, that people build elaborate buildings with all the creature comforts, spending enormous sums of money for construction and upkeep on these “temples” if neither we nor God live in them? I guess we really know why don’t we? What are these structures we put so much stock in amount to but monuments to human pride? God doesn’t dwell in them. He isn’t served by them. What do they do to help the community of Christ function as his community?