There isn’t a place in the Bible that gives us a full discussion on the church and what it should be in all ages. One of the challenges people face in studying the Bible is that it doesn’t have a chapter on the church and another on how to be saved and another on how to live each day as part of the family. With most books you pick up you can turn to the index and look up the topics you are really interested in and read it to get what it says on that topic. With the Bible one may find instruction on many different topics in the same chapter.
One surprising thing is that the word “church” isn’t used at all in three of the four gospel accounts. Only Matthew mentions the church and he does so only on two occasions. In Matthew 16:13-19 he pictured Jesus asking his disciples who men said he was. They told him some said John the Baptist, some Elijah, some Jeremiah or one of the prophets. He then asked “Who do you say that I am?” Peter answered for the group saying, “You are the Christ the son of the living God.” Jesus blessed him for his answer noting that it wasn’t some man that taught him such but the Father in Heaven. Jesus then said that on that rock of the one Peter had confessed, Jesus would build his church and the gates of Hades would not prevail against it. “I will give to you the keys to the kingdom of heaven and what ever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
If you had been there when Jesus said this you wouldn’t have thought about a church building or some denominational body. The word church had never been used in such a way. You would have thought of a group of people, a community or a gathering. They would have understood that he was going to gather a group of people as his community.
The other occasion when Matthew used the word “church” is in Matthew 18:15-20. He was talking about how we should act when we realize one who is a brother is guilty of sin. He challenged us to go to him first alone to try to win the brother. If that succeeds then don’t go any further. If it doesn’t take one or two with you so that every word might be established before witnesses. If he hears them it stops there and the problem is solved. If it doesn’t stop there one is to take it to the church and let the person be to us as an unbeliever.
Obviously the church here refers to a local gathering of disciples of Christ who would long to bring a person back who had gone astray. This doesn’t seem to be a case of withdrawing fellowship since when a person is withdrawn from we are to not count them as an enemy but exhort them as a brother (2 Thessalonians 3:15). The taking of the matter to the church wasn’t for them to do some formal statement of excommunication but for them to pray for the person and all go to him to try to win him back.
What is amazing to me is that throughout the gospel accounts Jesus tended to refer to the kingdom that was going to be established. Most of his parables started with the phrase, “The kingdom of heaven is like.” He promised the power of the Holy Spirit on those who waited in Jerusalem for the coming of the kingdom with power. But when you reach the book of Acts and the letters written to churches and Christians the word “kingdom” is used infrequently. Instead the word “church” becomes the common word to describe the called out ones for Christ. The fact that Jesus used the two words interchangeably in Matthew 16:18-19 does indicate that the two words often refer to the same people. But the two words aren’t always interchangeable. Sometimes the word “kingdom” is used of the heavenly kingdom we will be part of after this life is over (2 Timothy 4:1; 2 Peter 1:10-11).
The fact that several illustrations are used to help us see what the church is all about is helpful. When the Bible describes the church as the family or household of God it is saying the church is a family (I Timothy 3:15; Ephesians 2:20-22). When the church is described as a body it is stressing the point that we are united and each have a place to fill in the body (I Corinthians 12; Romans 12:1-8; Ephesians 1:22-23; Colossians 1:18,24). When the church is called a kingdom it points to the fact that Jesus Christ is the mighty king and our place is to submit to his rule and authority (Colossians 1:13;Hebrews 12:25-29).
Consider the following possibilities for the pattern for the church: One could look at prophesies such as Isaiah 2:1-4 to see some aspects of the church. We could learn that it started in Jerusalem with people from many different places. We can learn that it is to spread by means of peace. It isn’t like the Old Testament kingdom of Israel that conquered their enemies with the sword. The church will beat their swords in to plows and their spears into pruning hooks and they won’t study war anymore. Those who come into the church will go out to invite others to come in and hear the word of the Lord.
Another source would be to look at Revelation chapters 2 and 3 when Jesus wrote seven letters to sever different churches to both encourage them in what they were doing right and to correct them in areas they were wrong. Each of the seven were different from each other and had different strengths and weaknesses. By looking through what he commended and condemned we can learn a tremendous amount about what he wants the church to be like in all times.
He commended the churches for standing for the truth of his word and being faithful to him even in the middle of persecution. He commended them for holding on when everything seemed hopeless. He commending them for standing against groups of teachers who were teaching error and hurting the body. He condemned the immoral practices that had become common and accepted in the churches. He condemned the lack of love and fervor in serving him. He condemned the pride and arrogance that thought they were rich, had everything and didn’t need God. It’s obvious from this that the church of the Lord in any era must teach morality and stand up for it. It must stand against error both from the inside and outside. It must spread the message of Christ everywhere. It must be faithful in its relationship with Christ. If must put out those who teach and practice ungodly ways. It must be fervent in love and zeal for God and keep Christ in the middle of all we do.
Two other areas where one can look for patters are in the Book of Acts as one observes the different churches started by God’s people and the other is the letters written to churches, most often to correct some problem or error they had accepted. Sometimes, such as in Romans and Ephesians there is a clear presentation of what the church should be like without much being said about what was wrong. In later posts we will look at each of these to see what we can learn about a pattern for the church.