When we say the word church it is in such common usage that we automatically imagine a certain image, usually of a building where people meet to worship God. Sometimes by context our mental image is of a group of people in a large auditorium, sitting in rows of seats or pews. For more than 1600 years we have been “doing church” in a more or less the same way, so that no matter what culture you go to, within reason, if you found yourself in church, you would recognize it. Little has changed since the early days that worshippers moved into buildings of their own, dedicated to the worship of God, and those buildings became known as churches.

However, this is not how the word was first used by Jesus and his disciples before the third century. The New Testament has 114 instances of the word church, or the Greek ekklesia (pronounced EK-KLAY-SIA), not a single instance means a building. In the NIV ekklesia is translated into the English church or churches 108 times, into assembly four times, and congregation or congregations twice. There is therefore, amazing consistency in the New Testament that leaves very little doubt as to what is meant when ekklesia is used.

The first use of the word occurs in Matthew 16:18, is where Jesus told Peter that he would build his church. In the gospels the word is rare only occurring three times in all, with two of them in Matthew 18:17 (Blomberg, C. (2001). Vol. 22: Matthew (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers). The New American Commentary says that there is no doubt that Jesus referred to Peter when he said, “On this rock I will build my church.” It was a play on words, because Peter’s name means rock. Peter’s confession signaled something in his apprehension of the truth about Jesus identity, not to mention importance of him perceiving of the voice of the Holy Spirit (Matt 16:17). These insights uniquely placed Peter in a position to lead the church at its inception, after his restoration (cf. John 21). It was Peter who took charge after the ascension of Christ (Acts 1:15), and who on the day of Pentecost first stood up to explain the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:14). Peter is featured prominently as the leader in the early chapters of Acts, as the church gets established, and before the Apostle Paul becomes more prominent among the Gentiles (cf. Acts 3:1, 11; 4:1, 23; 5:1-11; 8:14; 9:32). Peter was chosen to take the message of the Spirit’s baptism to Gentile believers (Acts 10:1-48). And it was Peter’s words of encouragement that finally tip the balance in the favor of Gentiles at the first council in Jerusalem (Acts 15:6-11). There is no doubt that Peter was foundational in establishing the early church. The theological abuses that have followed in history do not negate or depreciate Jesus’ original assertion (Blomberg, C. (2001). Vol. 22: Matthew (electronic ed.). Logos Library System; The New American Commentary. Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers). There is nothing to indicate that Jesus meant anymore than that Peter’s confession was a precursor to him having an integral and vital role in the establishment of the church in the future. There is no hint that Jesus meant anymore than this.

With question of Peter’s apostolic authority and role out of the way, we can turn to the more important question of what Jesus meant by church in Matthew 16:17-18. First, we want to notice what Jesus said about the church in this context, before we attempt to define the concept. Three things come to light, that Jesus will build his church (future tense), that it is his church (my church), not Peter’s or anyone else’s, and that the church was intended to be triumphant, durable and successful, even against the very portals of hell.

Jesus took full responsibility for building his church. And from Peter’s perspective at least it was future. In the future Jesus would build his church, and Peter was to become foundational to its origin. Obviously the church really gained momentum after the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:42-47). On the Day of Pentecost, 3,000 people were added to the church and that number grew to 5,000 a little while later, and continued to grow rapidly (Acts 2:41; 4:4; 5:14; ) . The gospel of Luke and Acts indicate that immediately after Jesus’ ascension, the disciples and followers of Jesus began to meet regularly, especially in the temple under Solomon’s porch, but also in the upper-room (cf. Luke 24:53; Acts 1:13; 2:46; 3:1; 4:1, 23; 42; 5:12). The term fellowship in the early church was a key description of the church. Fellowship means to have things in common or to share (Wiersbe, W. W. (1996). The Bible exposition commentary. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books). The closeness of the bond between believers in the early church was so real, that Luke could say that there were no needy ones in the church among the believers because they shared their possessions and resources with one another so completely (Act 2:45; 4:34-35). The growth of the church was entirely spontaneous, but the apostles provided leadership to it (cf. Act 6:1-7).

This fellowship of believers in Jesus Christ, the church, was characterized by what Luke calls steadfastness, strong and faithful adherence, to certain principle elements of corporate life, the teaching of the apostles (increasing knowledge of God, salvation, and of the kingdom of God), fellowship (strong relationships), breaking bread (communion) and prayer (corporate worship (cf. Luke 24:53; Acts 1:13; 2:46; 3:1; 4:1, 23; 42; 5:12)) (Act 2:42-47). It was also characterized by steady growth in numbers; the number of believers in Christ was increasing, sometimes dramatically. The reality on the ground after the Day of Pentecost helps us understand what Jesus meant by, “I will build my church!” The growth in numbers and fellowship among believers was quite spontaneous, flowing out of the great outpouring of the Spirit. It was divine and miraculous, the result of the hand of God, albeit under the leadership of the apostles. Jesus was building his church and it was increasing in numbers and deepening in terms of relationships!

This is the first clue as to what the church is or what Jesus meant by church. The church was principally a fellowship of believers in close relationship with one another, worshipping God and impacting their world with the message of the good news about the kingdom of God. There is no hint of institutionalization, of religious organization, of theological systemization, ostentatious liturgies and pious structures. The early church was very simply the followers of and believers in Christ in close fellowship with one another, sharing, worshipping and witnessing (cf. Acts 1:8; 11:19-21). They did develop structures for conducting their business, like bringing their offerings to the apostles (Acts 5:34-35), and adding leadership when it became necessary (Acts 6:1-7). They even called a general (council) business meeting to debate the issue of Gentile circumcision (cf. Acts 15). But none of these structures ever took center stage, even in the Gentile churches founded by Paul. Paul continually emphasized the key elements of relationship within the body of Christ. If we are right in interpreting Jesus’ promise to build the church, against the actual events that occur early in Acts, then the church Jesus referred to building was at its very core a fellowship of believers and disciples, for whom the most important thing was relationship, not organization.

Jesus also said that it was his church. “I will build my church,” he said (Matt 16:18). After telling Peter that he was the rock on which he would build, Jesus asserted his own ownership of the church! The church was never Peter’s church, it was never the Roman Church, it was never Paul’s church, it was never the Protestant Church it has always been Christ’s church. He is its head (Eph. 1:22; 4:15; 5:23, 24; Col 1:18; 2:19). Christ is the full owner of the church, and he alone is responsible for it. Paul said that Christ gave himself up for the church, because he loved it, and in order that he might secure it for himself without blemish or spot, and to increase its “radiance” or beauty (Eph. 5:25-28). With the numbers of denominations and groups all claiming to be churches today, it is sobering to realize that there is only one church, and that it belongs to Christ, it is he that builds it and that he is its head. It exists apart from the all of the formal structures and organizations we have established and call church.

The flip side to this observation is that the apostles seem to have done very little by way of creating an organization, similar to the structures we know today. The church seems to have succeeded through the direction of the Holy Spirit, who applied the strategy that Christ spoke of before Pentecost (Acts 1:8). The growth of the church from Jerusalem to Rome was spontaneous, and at times the result of persecution, when the believers seemed reluctant to move beyond Judaism with the good news (cf. Acts 11:19-21)! That does not mean that the church had no structure, because clearly it did. The apostles provided oversight over the work of the ministry, until it got too big to handle and then they delegated the responsibility to other leaders (Acts 6:1-7). Their avowed focus was ministry of the Word and prayer, so the leaders had boundaries of responsibility. There was an development of structure in the early days. Later we discover that the Jerusalem church has elders, senior members who provide leadership to the church, and that Peter is not the lead pastor of Jerusalem church, but James the brother of Jesus is. Paul will appoint elders and deacons to his churches, and give instructions on issues that relate to the proper procedures for worship and community. The early church was not devoid of structure, but is was much less dependent and focused on structure than we typically are. A primacy was placed on the leadership and the operation of the gifts of the Holy Spirit; again, not altogether without leaders, guidelines and principles (cf. 1 Cor. 14). The point is that the early church seems to have been much more conscious of its connection to Christ as its head and source.

When Jesus said that the gates of hell would not prevail against his church, he was sounding a battle cry. This is not idle rhetoric, or simply poetic language, it was an assertion of ultimate triumphant success of the church against Satan, and all that opposes God. While obviously, even in the New Testament we see elements of weakness, failure and struggling in the churches and among the people of God, Jesus assures his disciples that when all of the dust is settled at the end of time, the church will prevail in its spiritual warfare against the kingdom of darkness that is opposed to it. Even at the very gates of hell, the church will not be defeated. They will fall to a church that is militant for its God!

The language that Jesus uses here is the language of warfare and opposition. The church is seen to be in battle and in opposition to the gates of hell. This is obviously metonymy for the whole kingdom of Satan, the arch-rival to God, and every opposition allied with him. The church is seen opposing the kingdom of darkness as the representative of Christ in the world. Paul picks up on this idea when he says that our warfare, the battles we fight, are not against flesh and blood, people, but against the powers of darkness, the kingdom of Satan who is opposing God (cf. Eph. 6:10-12). The church somehow becomes the focus of the activity of God, in terms of his kingdom opposing the kingdom of Satan. The church has become the instrument of accomplishing God’s purposes on earth. Although the church is not the perfect and full manifestation of the kingdom of God, it does represent a significant realization of that kingdom, in opposition to the kingdom of darkness in the world. And as such the church is to advance against enemy territory, principally with the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. And even when the church comes up against strongholds of evil that are as strong as the gates of hell, the church will prevail (cf. Rev. 2:12-13).

Somehow the church has become the instrument and representation of the kingdom of God on earth (cf. Matt. 6:10). Indeed, there is an element of kingdom fulfillment in the New Testament associated with the coming of Christ (cf. Mark 1:14-15) and the activity of the church after his ascension. Even though the New Testament anticipates a fullness of the coming of the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God is already operating in principle in the church and among God’s people, as they serve him and obey his will! The church is not merely a fellowship of religious people, but a conquering army opposing the kingdom of darkness in a world that God is reclaiming for himself through redemption and salvation. And even if the opposition reaches it greatest level, the triumph of the church is assured (cf. Rom. 8:28-39; 2 Cor. 2:14-15; 10:3-5; Col 2:15).

THE ASSEMBLY

In the original language of the New Testament, Greek, or Koine, the term EKKLESIA was a carryover from the classical period, where it was used to refer to an assembly of voting citizens. Therefore, EKKLESIA did not automatically mean a religious gathering as such. Jesus chose this word for the church, because it had a long history in the Greek version of the Old Testament, called the Septuagint or LXX, to refer to the assembly of God’s people Israel. Most of the time the word refers to the congregation of God’s people assembled for some kind of religious observance or sacred purpose (Ex. 12:16; Lev. 4:14; 8:3, 4; 9:5; 23:3, 7, 8, 2, 24, 27, 35, 36; Num. 28:18, 25, 26, 29:1, 7, 12, 35; et. al.). However, the assembly of Israel can be more or less a reference to the nation as a group.

Israel was never more an assembly than when they were gathered in the particular presence of God for some purpose. In their early history, they first gathered at the foot of Sinai, where the glory of God was evident in power through visible and audible tokens. The sights and sounds were so shocking that the people were overwhelmed and begged for Moses to represent them before God rather than to have to stand in his presence directly (cf. Ex. 19). Later on, when the tabernacle was dedicated, the people assembled to worship God, and the glory of God fell upon the sacrifice, and filled the Holy Place so that the priests could not continue their ministry because of the intensity of God’s inhabiting his temple (Ex. 40; Num. 7). In other places, Israel was called before the entrance to the Tabernacle (the Holy Place) by God in connection with some sacred purpose or moment of discipline (cf. Lev. 8; 16; Num. 9; 14; 16; 17; 20) Later on in Israel’s history there were times of national gathering, to dedicate the temple, to lament moral and spiritual breakdown and to pray for revival, to rebuild the temple, etc. Israel was primarily and assembly of people, among who God lived.

Indeed in Exodus 33 after the golden calf incident, God informs Moses that he is prepared to remove his presence from Israel, because of their sin (Ex. 33:1-3). Moses reaction was to plead with God for mercy, and to restore his presence to Israel. His plea was based on his assertion that without the presence of God, Israel was not different than any other nation on the earth (Ex. 33:15-16). The presence of God manifested at Sinai was to go with Israel, symbolized in the pillar of cloud and fire, to take up its place in Canaan, in connection with the temple (cf. 1 King 8:10-12; 2 Chron. 5:13-14). The throne of God was on earth was between the Cherubim on the Ark of the Covenant (2 Sam. 6:2; 2 Kings 19:15; 1 Chron. 13:6; Ps. 80:1; 99:1; Isa. 37:16), because God’s people were to be an assembly in his presence! The presence of God was essential to the identity of Israel, and to the fulfillment of their purpose.

When Jesus picked the word for the assembly of believers in him, it is with this rich heritage. He said to his disciples that where two or three are gathered in his name he would be among them (Matt. 18:20). The disciples of Christ were to be an assembly characterized by the presence of Christ, just as Israel was to be characterized by the presence of God, particularly authenticated by the glory! The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost should probably be understood in this light to some degree, empowering the church, but also designating it as the assembly of God people, characterized by his presence among them! The early church’s powerful experience of the Holy Spirit was not exceptional, as much as the what God intends for his people, that they be a people among whom God dwells. Paul confirms this when he states that God has built the church out of Jews and Gentiles, creating a single, unified body of believers from two distinct groups, in order that he might create a holy habitation for himself by Spirit in eternity (Eph. 2:21-22).

THE TEMPLE

In Acts the word church is used about 20 times, as a singular noun. It is used twice in the plural, churches. The significance of these two uses becomes apparent by examining the context of each occurrence. Early in Acts, Luke refers to God building adding to the church, by which he obviously means the believers in Jesus Christ in Jerusalem, who were saved as a result of the preaching of Peter on the Day of Pentecost and of witnessing the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. There were 3000 new converts that day (Acts 2:41), and the Lord continued to add daily to the church as the disciples witnessed to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and new believers entered into close fellowship with one another (Acts 2:47; cf. Acts 2:42-47). The church at Jerusalem became very large, very quickly, but it was characterized by very close fellowship among the disciples and believers in Christ. Luke calls this body of believers, the church, referring to the all believers in a general and universal sense as a fellowship of disciples of Jesus Christ (Acts 2:47; 5:11; 8:3; 12:1, 5; 14:27). At first the reference is to the huge number of believers in Jerusalem, who could not possibly meet on a single occasion, because no place would have been big enough to accommodate all of them. Therefore, the term church must have referred to the fellowship of believers under the leadership of the apostles, made up of multiple congregations throughout the city of Jerusalem, and who probably met in large numbers at the temple for prayer (cf. Acts 3:1; 3:11; 5:12). The whole body of believers, meeting in multiple congregations throughout the city is referred to as the church.

As believers are multiplied beyond Jerusalem the church still can refer to the entire fellowship of disciples who believe in Jesus Christ. However, Luke begins to talk about the church in Jerusalem, as distinct from the church in other locations (Acts 8:1; 11:22). So church can refer collectively to believers or disciples of Jesus Christ as an entire group in a city. In this sense, Luke uses the plural form to refer to multiple congregations in Jerusalem and in others cities that were being persecuted under the leadership of Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:31). After the Jerusalem council, where Paul and Barnabas represented the church at Antioch, and the Gentile churches planted in Asia Minor, the leaders sent word to the churches of the good news that they need not worry about submitting to Jewish legal and ceremonial customs (Acts 15:41). For a while, the church at Jerusalem stood as the de facto headquarters of the movement of disciples and believers in Christ. So it was natural for the Jerusalem church to send Peter and John to Samaria upon hearing news of the salvation of the Samaritans (Acts 8:14). Paul visited Jerusalem to seek approval of his gospel message after he had thrashed out the details in his own mind through prayer and study (Gal. 1:11-12; 17-19; 2:1-2, 7-10). Latter he and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem for a meeting to settle the issue of Gentile circumcision, partly because the issue had arisen because trouble had arisen as a result of people coming from Jerusalem, but also because Jerusalem was the natural place from which an authoritative pronunciation should come (Acts 15:1-41). Jerusalem would soon be eclipsed by the church at Antioch, from which the explosion in Gentile evangelism would occur (cf. Acts 13). Luke begins to use church and churches to refer to the worshipping fellowship of disciples in a particular town or location, consisting of either a single or multiple congregations (cf. Acts 13:1; 14:23; 27; 16:5; 18:22; 20:17, 28).

So there is a flexibility of use in the term church, to refer to the entire universal body of believers in Christ as a whole, and of smaller congregations, often by location, in their cities, towns or provinces. The emphasis is still on the fellowship or assembly of believers, their corporate life of devotion to God, worship and sharing with one another. There is no hint of anything institutional, denominational or organization, and there is certainly no indication that church ever meant a building. And the only times that church could possibly be construed as a service is found in Paul’s references to the church gathered for a particular worship occasion (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18, 22; 14:4, 5, 12, 19, 23, 28, 35). Even then it is clear that what Paul has in mind is an assembly of worshipping disciples of Jesus Christ, and he is not referring to the occasion itself, that brought them together (cf. 1 Cor. 11:18; 22). In His epistles, Paul uses the church or churches 62 times. Many of these references are, as we might expect, to congregations of believers in specific locations, either towns or regions (cf. Rom 16:1, 16, 23; 1 Cor. 1:2; 16:1, 19; Gal. 1:2, 22; Phil 4:5; 1 Thess. 1:1; 2 Thess. 1:1; ) Paul makes specific references to the church that meets in the homes of various believers, which gives us insight as to how the church ordinarily met for worship and fellowship (cf. Rom. 16:5; Col. 4:15; Philemon 2). At the same time Paul can conceive of the church as a universal body of believers, bound to one another by their common faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. In that respect, Paul calls the church, the universal body of disciples of Jesus Christ, the church of God, even when he associates it to a particular location (1 Cor. 1:2; 10:32; 11:16; 15:9; 2 Cor. 2:1; Gal. 1:13; 1 Tim 3:5, 15). For Paul church is either a fellowship of believers in specific location, the universe of disciples of Jesus Christ, who are the assembly that belongs to God, or a congregation that meets in someone’s house or for a particular occasion on which the disciples are meeting together to worship or fellowship.

This background is very important when it comes to understanding Paul’s references to the temple in his letters to the Corinthians and Ephesians. In those letters, Paul’s speaks to his theology and understanding of the church, in which he links the New Testament people of God with Old Testament Israel around the motif of the temple. In Ephesians chapters 2 and 3 Paul speaks of the mystery of the Christ (Eph. 3:1-13). He explains that the mystery is that in Christ Gentiles are included in the offer of salvation by grace, just as God had originally intended his Old Testament people, Israel, to be included, when he chose them historically as a nation to become his representatives. Israel as the historically chosen people of God, based on their descendency from Abraham, the man whom God chose by grace and who believed God’s promise to obtain righteousness, was given a significant advantage in that they were privy to saving knowledge of God, prior to anyone else in history (cf. Gen. 17; Rom. 4). Paul makes it clear that God has now revealed his purposes and salvific intentions Gentiles too, by his Spirit, through his prophets (Eph. 3:5). In other words God had been executing a redemptive strategy that began with Israel, but that was always intended to include Gentiles (cf. Gen. 12:1-3; Isa. 46:2; 49:2).

In chapter two of Ephesians Paul, illustrates God’s strategy by employing the temple motif (Eph. 2:11-22). Describing Israel as chosen participants (citizens of the nation) of God’s historical redemptive strategy, culminating in Christ (Eph 2:12), Gentiles were considered foreigners, aliens and strangers, excluded from involvement in the unfolding drama of salvation and redemption, by those who God had historically chosen. However, Paul makes it clear that historical election did not automatically grant Israel saving grace or redemption, but that the redemption and salvation of Jews and Gentiles together depends on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross (Eph 2:13). The shedding of Christ’s blood on the cross brought Jews and Gentiles together under a single plan of redemption, to find their salvation based on Christ’s final and complete sacrifice for sin. In this way Jews and Gentiles are reconciled to one another, as well as to God, because their salvation is based on the sacrifice of Christ, regardless of their respective historical and ethnic positions. God has made a single body, a single church out of two ethnic entities, by redeeming them through a single sacrifice for sin. This was God’s intention from the beginning, even when he began with the historical election of Israel to be carriers of his purpose and plan (Eph. 2:15; cf. Gen. 12:1-3). The historical enmity between the two, the wall of separation that was the result of historical election, religious codes and practices, has been torn down by Christ, now that salvation is offered to Jews and Gentiles through faith in his shed blood (Eph. 2:14-16). In this way Paul alludes to the wall in the temple at Jerusalem, beyond which Gentiles could not go up to worship God, on the pain of death (Eph. 2:17). Gentiles had to be content with distance between them and God, while Jews were able to draw nearer to the Holy Place where the presence of God dwelt. In Christ that wall has come down so that Jews and Gentiles are now given access to the presence of God, whose presence historically “resided” in his temple, in the Holy of Holies beyond the veil, but now, since Pentecost, dwells in the church as a fellowship of believers! Access to the presence of God is no longer restricted to Jews, who even then could only approach at a distance; Gentiles are now invited into full communion and fellowship with God, right alongside Jews, through Christ and his sacrifice for salvation. Paul says that God is constructing a new temple, not of blocks of stone, and wooden beams, but of redeemed people, growing to become and habitation of God, through the Holy Spirit’s indwelling (Eph. 2:22).

The idea of the church as a temple in which the Spirit dwells or the presence of God can be found is a very significant concept to Paul. What was the Shekinah of the Old Testament temple, the visible token of God’s presence, a manifestation of his glory, often represented by fire or a cloud, has become the Pentecostal endowment of the Holy Spirit poured out on the church, particularly manifested in the fellowship of God’s people as they assemble, but also uniquely and personally real to each believer in their own experience of fellowship with God! Ephesians represents a later development of Paul’s theology of the presence of God, in terms of the indwelling Spirit in the church and the life of the believer. In his letters to the Corinthians, Paul twice makes reference to the church being the temple of God.

In 1 Corinthians Paul addresses a catalogue of issues that have probably been referred to him in a letter from Corinth. In one section of the letter he reprimands the church that two of its members are involved in a lawsuit against one another before unbelievers in the courts (1 Cor. 6:1). The church stood by while these brethren sued one another (Fee, Gordon, The Empowering Presence of God: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul. (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. 1994). 128). Paul argues that the church is an eschatological community, the community of God’s people in whom God dwells by his Spirit, and in which the principles of the coming age of Christ’s victorious reign have already begun through the Spirit (1 Cor. 6:2-3)! The saints he said, will judge angels after all, so surely they ought to be able to take care of this matter without embarrassing the church in front of unbelievers (1 Cor. 6:4-6). It is this conviction, that the church is an eschatological community, already participating in the principles of the age to come through the power of the Spirit, operating as representatives of the kingdom of God on earth, that drives the practical instructions that Paul gives in the rest of this chapter.

Apparently some of the members of the church had been resorting to the use of the shrine prostitutes in the idols’ temples at Corinth. The reason for this may have something to do with the matters Paul addresses in chapter 7, where he warns the husband and wife that they are not to withhold sexual intimacy from one another (1 Cor. 7:1-6). However, that turns out, some in the church seem to have argued that since they were people of the Spirit, the body didn’t matter, and that since God was going to destroy the body anyway, they could make use of the prostitutes without harm (1 Cor. 6:12-13) (Fee, Gordon. The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987. 251). His emphasis on sexual immorality and the body make it clear that Paul does not share their view (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 250). Paul argues that the body is for the Lord and the Lord is for the body, and the body not intended for sexual immorality, but is to be used to honor God (1 Cor. 6:13, 20). The body is not immaterial to God at all, because he intends to raise even the physical bodies of the saints to a new glorified, eternal life (1 Cor. 6:14; 15;1-58). That which God will raise to eternal cannot be construed as immaterial and irrelevant! Besides our bodies are members of Christ, and sexual intercourse is intended for the uniting of a man and woman to become one flesh, a unity of two persons. It is not merely an inconsequential physical act at all (Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians. 251). Through salvation, they have been united to Christ, and belong to him, so that the sexual immorality, which God considers sin, cannot be compatible with the union of the believer to God through the indwelling presence of the Spirit. Through their union to Christ, their bodies have become the temple of the Holy Spirit, who lives in them, and it is inconceivable that they should abuse the temple of God by engaging in immoral sexual conduct with an instrument that should be reserved for the service of God (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Individually, then, Paul considers believers to be the temple of God. That is, the presence of God is somehow an indwelling reality in the life of the believer, in a similar way to the presence of God residing in the temple as a sign that Israel was his chosen people, set apart for his purposes and plans. There is a sense in which through the Spirit our bodies have already begun to participate in the eschatological reality of the Spirit because of Pentecost (cf. Joel 2:28-29), the fullness of which will come at the return of Christ and with the resurrection of the saints (Rom. 8:11). That which is already united to God through the Spirit, participating in the eschatological reality of his presence, the fullness of which is still future to be sure, cannot become entangled with the sin of the this present world, which is destined for destruction. Paul is arguing for the complete commitment of their lives to the kingdom of God, spirit and body, in service for God. It all belongs to him, and he expects to be honored and glorified in every aspect of our lives!

In his second epistle to the Corinthians, Paul addresses a similar issue, but this time it has to do with social alliances between believers and unbelievers (2 Cor. 6:14-18) (Fee, The Empowering Presence of God, 337). Paul’s instruction is clear, the Corinthians are to separate themselves from any social activities in their communities that engage them in environments and things where ungodliness is occurring or where there is worship of idols. In the Roman world the entertainments of the day either involved the worship of the Roman and Greek gods, or they took place in the temples where the idols were worshipped as part of the common practice of the day. Paul considers the worship of idols as a participation in the demonic spiritual world that is opposed to God (1 Cor. 10:20-22). To engage in such activities is to yield to the influence and authority of the kingdom of darkness, which opposes God in this world (Fee, The Empowering Presence of God, 338). Such a participation undermines holiness and righteousness in the believer and is counterproductive to the activity of the Spirit that seeks to perfect holiness in God’s people. Paul’s point is quite clear. How can the believers in the Corinthian church attend or participate in activities that include worship of idols. It is impossible to share in meals held at the idols temple, and to eat communion at the table of the Lord! There is no union between Christ and devil, between sin and righteousness, so how can they participate in worshipping idols and in worshipping Christ? The problem was a weak understanding of the church an eschatological community, empowered and indwelt by the Spirit of God, in which the principles of the coming age are already at work! What is at work in the church through the Spirit is opposed and at war with the principles that operate in this world, and in the kingdom of darkness that stands behind them. Again, the Corinthians had forgotten that the church as a community is the temple of God in the city of Corinth, opposed to the kingdom of darkness, and worship of anything that represents the principles of this passing age. Paul clearly sees the church in its city as an eschatological community, representing God and his kingdom, operating under the principles of the coming age in the power of the indwelling Spirit, and opposing the sin and darkness of this world with light, truth and faith.

The clear emphasis in this passage is what Paul seems to imply in Ephesians, that the church is the temple of God in which God dwells through his Spirit. God literally walks among his people, as their God (2 Cor. 6:16b), in just the same way that he will become their God in eternity when the full reign of Christ comes (cf. Rev. 21:3). Therefore, for Paul the church is God’s people because God dwells among them by his Spirit, in the same way that Israel was reckoned as God’s people because God dwelled among them, in his temple (Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 337). For Israel to continue to enjoy the presence of God, along with his blessings and providence, they had to avoid association with the immorality and idolatry of the nations around them. This is very important to Paul, because the presence of God through the Spirit forms the rationale for why believers should maintain moral and spiritual separation from the activities and spirit of this present age (2 Cor. 6:17). The church stands apart as the bridgehead of God into a rebellious world, invading the kingdom of darkness with the gospel of Jesus Christ, rescuing sinners and preparing for the return of Christ. The power of the kingdom of God operates in the church, because the eschatological power of the Spirit has been poured out upon her. The church is literally the kingdom of God, empowered by the Spirit, opposing sin and darkness in the world. Believers are to be oriented toward the values and purposes of the age to come, not toward the present age that is passing away (cf. Col. 3:1-2) (Fee, God’s Empowering Presence, 338). The disciples of Christ and the church cannot become polluted by this world, that is by its sin, its attitudes and value system. Because it is in the church through the power of the indwelling Spirit, the values and principles of the coming age are at war with the kingdom of darkness, the church is charged with confronting and overcoming the world through the power of the risen Christ who is Lord. For this reason, the church, and members of the church cannot allow themselves to participate in the activities of the world or adopt its values and attitudes that are at the heart of the rebellion of this age against the rule of God. The church is charged with bringing the sovereign rule of God into confrontation with everything that is opposed to him in this world, with the goal of winning the lost to Christ and making disciples. At the heart of this confrontation is holiness, moral and spiritual purity that reflects the character of God. So each church in its own location is the temple of God where his presence dwells through his Spirit, representing (imaging) him, building his kingdom and confronting the kingdom of darkness.

THE BODY OF CHRIST

The language that the church is the body of Christ is so ingrained in the institutional church that we fail to understand it properly, without historically religious baggage. Inevitably the body of Christ has come to mean the institutional church engaged in its religious, particularly liturgical activity. The more organized the church has become, the more body language has taken on the sense of referring to the instutionalized church, with all of its hierarchical structure, denominational trappings, and theological, liturgical peculiarities.

Nevertheless, when Paul first proposed the metaphor of the body of Christ for the church he almost certainly had a very simplistic, illustrative idea in mind. For him the metaphor of the body of Christ for the church serviced two main functions. Firstly, it allowed Paul to propose that the church was in reality a diversity within a unity, that there were many members, all different in function and nature, but that together they made up one body or one church. No matter how many congregations were multiplied throughout the world, ultimately there was only one body, one church. However, within the church there was astonishing diversity; there were Jews and Gentiles, slaves and freemen, male and female, etc. All of them brought their differences to the table to complement the overall ministry and function of the church. All together in cooperative unity, the church could function in the world serving God and glorifying him. This diversity also provided Paul with the important analogy of the interdependence of the members of the body, each supplying and receiving what is needed by the other members, and thereby each part contributes to the overall health and success of the whole body itself. In this way the church as a whole is dependent on each member doing their part to supply what is needed for the body or church to function well and succeed.

The second thing that the body of Christ language afforded was an analogy for the headship or Lordship of Jesus Christ over his people, over the church. Just as God was sovereign over Israel, called Lord, so Christ is Lord over the church, he is the head of the body (Eph 1:22; 4:5; 5:23; Col. 1:18). The body derives its direction from the head, which rules over every function in the body. If the head is missing or separated from the body, the body dies. The body only survives and thrives when it is properly connected to the head. Paul saw Christ as the Lord and head over all things in the church (Col. 1:18), and although the world is in temporary rebellion against God, all things will be ultimately brought under the sovereign authority of God by Christ (1 Cor 15:20-28; Col. 1:15-20). The church as the forerunner of the kingdom of God in this world, already operates under the principle of the Lordship of Jesus Christ! The church is his church, and it fulfills his will and anticipates his return in glory. As the precursor of the coming of the kingdom of God, to be the universal reality of all of creation, the church operates under the headship of Jesus Christ in this world, where the age to come intersects with the present age, and where light is at war with darkness (2 Cor. 10:3-5; Eph 6:1-12).

Diversity and Unity: There are three passages in scripture where Paul uses body of Christ language, Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:1-31 and Ephesians 4:14-16. Each passage carries its own particular emphasis, even when the ideas overlap. The main overlapping idea in all three passages is the interdependence of the parts of the body, as an illustration of the interdependence of the members of the church. Just as the body requires each of its individual parts to function properly and efficiently in relationship to the other parts for the whole body to live and work, so the church requires its members to all work properly together in unity, with each one living up to their responsibilities and duties. The church cannot be the kingdom of God in the world, nor serve God effectively in this age, if the members of the church are not working together, and in harmony with one another. The body requires that interconnected parts support the other parts of the body, so that all of the functions of the body are continuously supported by what flows through or is contributed by the individual parts. The supply of direction from the head requires that each part remain connected and the flow from the head remains uninterrupted by disconnection of disunity in the case of the church.

The nature of the connectedness that Paul has in mind here, obviously has to do with relationships. It can probably be demonstrated quite effectively that in practical terms, the chief concern Paul addresses in his epistles is the fellowship of believers in the local church. Paul is constantly speaking about maintaining the fellowship of members with one another through carefully nurturing the relationships they have with one another. In this connection, Paul often speaks of love, humility, kindness, patience and concern for each other.

In Romans 12 Paul emphasizes that each member of the body of Christ should go with, or pursue their strengths. Each member of the church has been given a measure of grace by God (Rom. 12:3). The gift each has received is unique and different from person to person, being expressed differently by each one. This grace from God operates in the members of the church to produce diversity of ministry. Diversity of ministry is required because of wide variety of needs in the world and in the church, among its people. Different members having differing strengths, interests and abilities, when activated by God’s grace, are able to support the entire function of the body, as long as everyone fills their place faithfully. The effectiveness of the ministry of the church lies in this balanced diversity of the body. Members are to operate and serve God faithfully in their strengths according to the grace of God. In this way, everything that is required in the church is done, so that the will of God may be accomplished, the kingdom built and God properly served.

In the Corinthian church an unhealthy preoccupation with the gift of speaking in tongues had developed, as well as an egotistical emphasis on wisdom as mark a of spirituality and maturity. Speaking in tongues itself may have been regarded as a mark of spiritual wisdom, and therefore spiritual maturity, in their eyes. Paul counteracts in four ways. First, he states that mere passion is not a mark of spirituality, so ecstatic speech is not a measure of spiritual maturity (1 Cor. 12:1-3). Secondly, Paul says that there is a single origin for the spiritual gifts found in the body; they come from one Lord, one God, one Spirit. This means that there is no one gift that is any more a mark of spiritual maturity than another (1 Cor. 12:4-6)! Thirdly, he warns them that the body, the church needs a diversity of gifts, if it is not to be a gross monstrosity, becoming a giant nose or a giant ear, with no other functioning parts (1 Cor 12:1-28). Without diversity of operation and gifts the church suffers loss in ministry, in relationships and in effectiveness as the servant of Christ in this world. Fourthly, Paul reminds them that the object of spiritual gifts it to edify, encourage and build the body of Christ (1 Cor. 14:18-19). Spiritual gifts do not serve as marks of spirituality or maturity; they are for promoting the health, growth and encouragement of the church. For that reason, if the Corinthians want to focus their passion on spiritual gifts, they should choose what contributes to the welfare of the community, the church (1 Cor. 14).

In Ephesians 4 Paul is focusing on the unity of the body, or the church. The church is one church, and as a result of that unity, the parts of the body, members of the church, need to support one another (Eph. 4:3-16). The progress of the church as a whole depends on mutually functioning members in the church, each supplying the other, rather than seeking to be supplied! Christ, has given the body leadership, in order that the body should work efficiently to promote its own overall growth and so that the body can mature into the full measure of the stature of Christ (Eph 4:11-13). The growth and success of the body, its continued existence as the church of Jesus Christ, depends on members supporting one another (Eph. 4:16). Indeed, Paul’s illustration of each part doing its part stretches back to verse 3 as a description of how the members of the church are to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the church. It is selflessness that promotes the unity of the church, when each member of the church does everything in their power to supply the needs and promote the welfare of others.

The Head of the Church: Where Christ is described as the head of the church, Paul makes the point that the Lordship of Christ is paramount to the church. The church depends on the direction of God for its proper function and the fulfillment of its purpose. Christ is still the director and teacher of his disciples, although his presence is now mediated in the church by the Holy Spirit. In Paul’s eschatology, the sovereignty of God, challenged at the fall by sin, is being restored through the church as the kingdom of God advances in this world against the kingdom of darkness. Paul anticipates a climactic moment when Christ will finally assume the full rights of his exalted position over this world (cf. 2 Thess. 2:1-12; Phil. 2:11) . He has already been recognized as Lord in heaven, following his resurrection and ascension (Phil. 2:9-11). Christ sits as the right hand of God, and has been declared the conquering Lord. But in order to offer redemption to the lost, there is a delay in the final and full implementation of the Lordship of Christ in this world. Nevertheless, the Lordship of Christ is not entirely missing, because in the church the principles of the kingdom of God are operating, as God people live in obedience to him and his will, loving and adoring him!

The church then is the body of Christ in the world, continuing what Christ began when he came into the world (cf. Luke 24:46-49; Acts 1:1). Having completed his mission, Christ ascended into heaven and poured out on his church the same Holy Spirit that operated in his ministry, so that they could carry his work forward. But the church serves under the authority of Jesus, who gave the anointing. The church works toward his purpose and prepares the planet for his return! The church is where the kingdom of God operates under the Lordship of Christ, as a demonstration of his Lordship that will come at his return, when he will assume the throne over all creation, in perpetuity.

BREAD

Paul uses the metaphor of bread to describe the function and character of the church. In 1 Corinthians 10:14-17, he describes the church as one loaf, in the context of discussing the Lord’s Supper or Communion. Paul asks them a question which carries with it some underlying context in the local church, about which we can only speculate from evidence in the text. This much seems clear, some of the believers in the Corinthian church had an uncomfortably close attachment to the idolatry of the city. Whether they were actively worshipping in the temples or not we do not know, or whether Paul is addressing participating in the social events of the community, where idolatry was a big factor, it is hard to say. In chapter 6 Paul addresses sexual immorality, where it seems that the shrine prostitutes are probably referred to (1 Cor. 6:12-20). In chapter 10 he takes up the issue of believers joining the community meals and celebrations where idols and false gods are worshipped (1 Cor. 10:1-22). In chapter 12 Paul makes a strange statement about Jesus being cursed in a worship setting that, given his reference to dumb idols, can only refer to an idols temple or some pagan ritual (1 Cor. 12:1-3). Paul warns his readers that it was idolatry that was the undoing of Israel, and that led them into immorality and spiritual failure before God (1 Cor. 10:6-10). Because of the moral and spiritual climate of the city, idols’ temples were no place for believers to seek out social interaction and friendships.

Here is where the all important, emphatic question comes up, is not the cup of thanksgiving a participation in the blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16). Literally he means a fellowship in the blood of Christ. Paul draws a distinction between fellowship around the table of idols and around the table of the Lord. He argues that believers who belong to the fellowship of those who have participated in the blood of Christ cannot simultaneously sit at the table of idols! Believers cannot participate in some of things around them in the world because they are opposed to holiness, to God, to his kingdom and represent the rebellion of the world against his rule! The rituals and events of the idols temples are out of bounds for believers in Jesus Christ, because the eating at the table of idols is a participation in the worship of demons, who stand behind idols and false gods of this world, as the spiritual power of darkness and wickedness animating them (1 Cor. 10:20). It is incongruent for a disciple of Jesus Christ to participate in activities which involve the worship of idols and the demons that stand behind them and to also fellowship at the table of the Lord, as a participator in blood of Christ. Paul implies that the former desecrates the later! A believer cannot engage in the two simultaneously.

To be a participator in the blood of Christ means two things here. First it means to engage in the commemoration of Christ’s death at the Lord’s table, acknowledging that you have been forgiven and cleansed from sin, through the sacrifice of Christ (1 Cor. 11;26). It is to acknowledge that by God’s grace, and as a result of faith in Christ you have been saved. Secondly, Paul means that by taking part in communion the believer is affirming his deep and personal connection to Christ, and to the members of his body, in a relationship that the New Testament calls fellowship. To eat at the table of the Lord is at the same time an act of worship, the acknowledgement of Christ’s sacrifice by remembering it, and it is thanksgiving to God for salvation through the shed blood and broken body of Christ on the cross. However, for Paul it is more than even that, it is participating in fellowship with Christ and his church, meaning engaging the strong connection of the relationship we have in Christ. The table is symbolic of this fellowship of believers with one another. The fellowship believers share with one another and with Christ is what forms the body, the church, which itself belongs to God through redemption. To eat and drink at the table of the Lord affirms the connection that the disciples of Jesus Christ have with Christ, a loyal fellowship involving obedience to the will and righteousness of God. At the same time the table is affirms the connection believers have with one another, whereby all other earthly, and certainly worldly, connections fade into insignificance in the light of that fellowship. There is in Paul’s mind a sense of mutual connection, support, encouragement, love, and joint mission shared by all who know Christ that supersedes every other association, to the extent that it excludes and rules out those associations that contradict the morality of God, or that oppose his kingdom and gospel.

So Paul affirms that Christ’s disciples in the local church are one loaf. Their need for fellowship is satisfied by their connection to one another through their mutual participation in the blood of Christ for the forgiveness of their sins. There is no need to look elsewhere for fellowship! In this sense Paul will challenge his readers to treat one another with respect, especially the poor, who were being neglected at Corinth (1 Cor. 11:17-22). So the table of the Lord becomes an analogy of the closeness of the relationships believers have with Christ and with one another.

The value of their contribution to the kingdom of God is not found in their individuality. This issue Paul will address when he speaks about spiritual gifts (1 Cor. 12-14). The value of their contribution to the kingdom of God consists what is accomplished in the church through the connection they have to one another as fellowshippers together in Christ as one loaf. There is nothing substantive in the crumbs, but when the crumbs are formed into one loaf there is power and substance. So it is in the church. The substance and ministry, the effectiveness and encouragement, the power and work of the church are all found in the cooperative activity and obedience of one loaf, not in the individual crumbs. By the time Paul gets to spiritual gifts, he will nail down some of the practical implications of what he is saying here (cf. 1 Cor. 12-14). Nevertheless, here he is principally concerned with encouraging the Corinthians to understand that maintaining ties to their former way of life while at the same time eating at the Lord’s table, undermines their connection to and fellowship other believers in the church, and with Christ himself.

In an earlier chapter Paul warned his readers that a little yeast causes the whole batch of bread to rise (1 Cor. 5:6-8). In that instance he was dealing with sexual immorality. The point he is making is that tolerating spiritual and moral compromise, sin, weakens the morality and spiritual effectiveness of the entire church. Similarly, Paul argues here that the strength of the church is in the interconnectedness of fellowshipping believers, who are joined to Christ and one another by their participation in the saving power and grace of God. When members of the church engage in activities that connect them in fellowship with the world, they are undermining their connection or fellowship with the body, the church, and compromising the church’s effectiveness as a witness to its community. To put one’s feet under two tables is to dishonor the table of the Lord and to break faith with the fellowship of believers that belong to the church. The strength and effectiveness of the church, Paul maintains, as a witness to the world, and in ministry and service to its own members, is found in the fellowship believers share with one another. The church, Paul has argued all through 1 Corinthians, is not about individualism (cf. 1 Cor. 1:10-17), but about fellowship, the power of God expressed in the interconnectivity of believer with one another and with him.

By using bread as an analogy, Paul has strengthened his argument for maintaining the unity of the church. This unity he calls fellowship that is rooted first in salvation, a common experience of cleansing from sin through the blood of Christ, and secondly in the shared experiences and responsibilities of the community.


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