Christ's Special Word For His
By Eddie Cloer
"And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon
this rock I will build My church; and the gates of
Hades shall not overpower it" (Matthew 16:18).
It was the night before Christ's crucifixion, and the ordeal through which He would have to pass was pressing upon His soul with unbearable weight. He took His eleven apostles and went to the Garden of Gethsemane for prayer. He left eight disciples near the entrance of the garden with the gentle command, "Sit here while I go over there and pray" (Matthew 26:36). Then, with Peter, James, and John at His side, He went farther into the garden. After a short distance, He said to them, "My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me" (Matthew 26:38). Leaving these three, He advanced to a place of solitude and fell on His face and prayed, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt" (Matthew 26:39).
In our Lord's prayer, a single word looms large in importance to Him and to us. In fact, His entire prayer revolves around it. It is the word "yet." The KJV has "nevertheless." It is no understatement to say that the salvation of the world depended upon the spirit indicated by this word.
Suppose Christ, as the only One in the universe who could save mankind, had not wanted to do it. Suppose He had chosen to put Himself first and sinners second. Suppose He had said, "The suffering is too great a price to pay. It is too much of a sacrifice to make for the few who would be saved." Suppose He had prayed, "Father, remove this cup from Me; for not Thy will, but as I will." The answer is obvious: Had He taken this attitude, this spirit, we would be lost and without any possible hope for salvation.
The whole world can rejoice that He placed compassion for sinners and submission to God over His personal wishes. Because our Savior was willing to utter "yet," we now have a way of salvation. Had He not been willing to utter that word, He would never have gone to the cross. Before His "yes" to the Father's will, there had to be a "yet" regarding His own will.
The pivotal meaning of this word "yet" in our Savior's prayer reminds us of the importance of key words in communication. Some words give such significant insight into vital thoughts and truths that they must be carefully studied. To ignore them almost always results in a misunderstanding.
This type of significance attaches to the word "church" because of its key relation to the entire New Testament message. It is an English translation of a word which appears 114 times in the Greek New Testament. It is probably accurate to say that one cannot hope to understand Christ's way of salvation for the world today without understanding the use of this word in the New Testament.
Let us examine this word from the three viewpoints of it which are expressed in the New Testament. These viewpoints convey the rich background of the word, the use Christ and the inspired writers made of it in connection with the redeemed people of God, and the practical application of the word for today.
ITS SECULAR USE
The word was first of all a common, everyday word without any particular religious connotation.
In its simplest meaning, the word appears to have meant an "assembly" of any kind for any purpose. A sample of this use surfaces in Acts 19 in connection with the riot which occurred in Ephesus. A disturbance regarding Christianity developed among the silversmiths who made images to the Asiatic goddess Artemis The sale of their images was being affected by Paul's preaching Christ in their city. Consequently, the silversmiths gathered with others of similar trades to discuss what could be done about what was happening to their business and religion (Acts 19:25). Demetrius, a silversmith, gave a rousing speech to them and incited the crowd into a frenzied mob (Acts 19:28). The people rushed into a nearby theater, and confusion prevailed. Luke said of their gathering in the theater: "So then, some were shouting one thing and some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and the majority did not know for what cause they had come together" (Acts 19:32; emphasis mine). The word used by Luke for the assembly in this verse is ekklesia, the word translated into English with our word "church." At first, the crowd thought that their gathering had something to do with Alexander because he had been placed before them. Alexander motioned to them with his hand to get their attention, as he sought an opportunity to speak to the crowd; but recognizing that he was a Jew, the crowd refused to listen to him and cried out for two hours, "Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!" (Acts 19:34). The town clerk eventually appealed to Demetrius to take lawful action against Paul and his companions if he believed they had broken the law. He further said,
But if you want anything beyond this, it shall be settled in the lawful assembly. For indeed we are in danger of being accused of a riot in connection with today's affair, since there is no real cause for it; and in this connection we shall be unable to account for this disorderly gathering (Acts 19:39,40; emphasis mine).
Luke then added, "And after saying this he dismissed the assembly" (Acts 19:41; emphasis mine).
Three times in this account of a secular meeting, Luke used the Greek word ekklesia (Acts 19:32, 39, 41). He used it to mean just an assembly, for the assembly he called an ekklesia in verses 32 and 41 is pictured as really "a mob" in verse 30. The assembly or ekklesia in the theater was not called together; it just happened in all the confusion and flow of events. Luke also called a lawful assembly where legal matters are settled an ekklesia in verse 39.
In light of Luke's usage of the word, it is best to think of the word ekklesia, in its secular use, as referring to an assembly of any kind. Sometimes an assembly is convened or summoned together, and sometimes an assembly just happens. Luke called both types of assemblies an ekklesia.
Some linguists today believe that the secular use of this word in New Testament days had more the meaning of "just an assembly" than the meaning of "a called out assembly." Luke's use of this word in Acts 19 would seem to confirm their conclusions.
As I grew up on the farm, I had the chore of gathering in the cows for milking in the morning and in the evening. I would take off through our pasture to find them, and once I had found them, I would hurry them to the barn. I would drive them into a lot, a corral, we had, where they would wait to be milked. Often when I would go looking for the cows, I would find the herd grazing in a group instead of scattered out in the pasture. According to the secular use of the word ekklesia, the cows in the corral were an ekklesia, for they had been gathered into a type of assembly, and the cows in a group in the pasture were also an ekklesia, for they had assembled together on their own.
Luke's use of this word gives us an insight into how this word was used in the secular world before our Lord used it in a religious sense. This background of the word will be a basis on which we can build a better understanding of our Lord's use of the word.
ITS RELIGIOUS USE
The word ekklesia had also a religious use in the New Testament.
It is clear from the Old Testament that in the Jewish background to Christianity the concept of an assembly of God's people is present. In the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament Scriptures, the "congregation" of Israel, which is qahal in Hebrew, was translated into Greek with the word ekklesia, especially when the "congregation" consisted of Israel gathered before the Lord for religious purposes (Deuteronomy 18:16; 31:30; 1 Kings 8:65; Acts 7:38).
The word "synagogue" was also used originally to refer to an assembly of people gathered together for a specific purpose. Later, the word was applied to an assembly of Christians who had gathered for worship. James used both Greek words, sunagoge and ekklesia, in his book, apparently because he had Jewish Christians in mind as the readers of his book. He used sunagoge for a congregation of Christians who had gathered for worship (James 2:2), and he used ekklesia for the body of believers in a given locality (James 5:14).
Thus, as our Lord chose a word that would designate the people who would be God's unique people through His salvation, He selected the word "church" (Matthew 16:18), which probably meant an "assembly" in its secular use but an "assembly of God's people" in its Old Testament connotation. Our Lord took a secular word and gave it a special religious meaning. In His selection of this word, He drew from its secular and religious backgrounds and added new meanings of His own. The word, in the use Jesus gave it, refers to the universal people of God who have been redeemed by His blood, whether they are assembled or not (Acts 8:3; Ephesians 1:22).
Another idea which is brought out in the New Testament in connection with the word ekklesia is the concept of one's being "called out" or "set apart." While this thought was probably not in the secular use of the word, it is an important part of the meaning in Christ's special use of it. This idea is projected into the word by the nature of the people designated.
Peter told the multitude on the Day of Pentecost, "For the promise is for you and your children, and for all who are far off, as many as the Lord our God shall call to Himself" (Acts 2:39). Paul told the Thessalonians to "walk in a manner worthy of the God who calls you into His own kingdom and glory" (1 Thessalonians 2:12). It was through the gospel that God had called them. Paul said, "And it was for this He called you through our gospel, that you may gain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ" (2 Thessalonians 2:14). Thus, those people who were called to God through the gospel were called "the church" (I Corinthians 1: 1- 3).
Although no Christian today
member of the congregation which
was established on Pentecost, all
true Christians of all times and
of all places are members of the same
church of the Lord which was
established on that day.
Furthermore, Paul told the church at Colossae, "For He delivered us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins" (Colossians 1:13,14). Peter said to "proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light" (1 Peter 2:9). Peter also wrote, "But like the Holy One who called you, be holy yourselves also in all your behavior" (1 Peter 1:15).
Saul of Tarsus, the Pharisee, became Paul, the Christian, through answering the call of God by obeying the gospel. When Christ appeared to him on the road to Damascus, Saul believed in Him, repented of his former way of life, and confessed Christ as Lord. Three days later, at Damascus, Ananias told him, "And now why do you delay? Arise, and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name" (Acts 22:16). Saul, upon receiving these instructions, arose and called upon His name for salvation by being baptized. Later, Paul referred to his becoming a Christian as his being called through God's grace (Galatians 1: 15). Thus, Saul was called, set apart, or made a Christian, and as such, was added by the Lord to the body of redeemed people which Christ called His church.
Jesus used the word "church" to refer to all of God's people in the New Covenant period without respect to locality or particular time. Although no Christian today is a member of the congregation which was established on Pentecost, all true Christians of all times and of all places are members of the same church of the Lord which was established on that day. The church was established once for all time in Jerusalem on the first Pentecost Day after Jesus' resurrection. It had but one birthday; it is not born again and again each century or after periods of apostasy.
ITS PRACTICAL USE
We would expect the meaning given to the word "church" by Jesus and the Holy Spirit to be brought out in a practical way in the New Testament, and this we indeed find to be the case.
In practical use, inspired writers used this word in four ways. First, they used it in a congregational sense, regarding a congregation of God's people in a given locality. Paul wrote unto "the church of God" at Corinth, to those who had been sanctified in Christ Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:2). The church in Philippi was referred to as "the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi" (Philippians 1:1). The saints in Thessalonica were referred to as "the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ" (I Thessalonians 1:1). All the Christians in a given locality were called "the church" of that place. An expression of the universal church is the local congregation of Christians. When one becomes a member of Christ's church, he will be a part of the body of Christians where he lives.
Second, the inspired writers used this word in a group sense, concerning the local congregations of a region. Luke wrote, "So the church throughout all Judea and Galilee and Samaria enjoyed peace, being built up; and, going on in the fear of the Lord and in the comfort of the Holy Spirit, it continued to increase" (Acts 9:31). Sometimes the church in a region was designated in the plural as "churches." Paul wrote to "the churches of Galatia" as he wrote his letter Galatians (Galatians 1:2). It would be a scriptural use of the word "church" to speak of the church in Europe or the churches in Europe.
Third, the New Testament writers used the word in a composition sense. They used it regarding the type or make up of the churches. Paul referred to "the Gentile churches" in his greetings of Romans 16: "Greet Prisca and Aquila, my fellow workers in Christ Jesus, who for my life risked their own necks, to whom not only do I give thanks, but also all the churches of the Gentiles; also greet the church that is in their house. (Romans 16:3 5).
Fourth, these inspired writers used the word "church" in an assembly sense, in reference to a congregation gathered for worship. The church exists when it is not assembled for worship, but the word "church" is used in a special way for the assembly of the church in a given locality. Paul said the Corinthians came together as a church when they assembled themselves together (I Corinthians 11:18). He told women to keep silent in the churches: "Let the women keep silent in the churches; for they are not permitted to speak, but let them subject themselves, just as the Law also says" (1 Corinthians 14:34). He is obviously referring to the worship assembly of the church in this passage.
Whether one refers to the church in a universal sense, a congregational sense, a group sense, a compositional sense, or an assembly sense, he is speaking of those who have been brought into the body of Christ by submission to the gospel of Christ. A Christian has been called out of the world and darkness and placed by God's grace into that body which Christ and the inspired writers of the New Testament called "the church."
Are you in this church? Do you see the need to come into Christ's church if you are not in His body?
Do you not see what Christ meant by the word "church"'? He took a word, which in its secular sense meant "assembly" and in its Jewish connotation meant "an assembly of the people of God," gave additional meaning to it, and applied it to the people who are called into salvation through the gospel of God's grace. In its broad import, therefore, it refers to all those who have been redeemed by the blood of Christ. In a local, practical sense, however, it refers to those He has saved and who are meeting together for worship.
Someone has said, "'The church does not save us, but it contains the saved." Jesus is the Savior of the world, and the ones He has saved He calls His church. The one who has been saved by Christ will love all others who have been saved by Him. He will have an affinity for them and will want to be with them that he might be strengthened in His faith by them and that he might in some way strengthen their faith. Through His inspired apostles, Christ has instructed His saved people to meet together in worship and to work together in the fulfillment of His mission (Hebrews 10:25; Titus 3:1). This grouping together of His saved people in a given locality in worship and work is the church of Christ.
Would Christ call you His church?
QUESTIONS FOR STUDY
the significance of the word "yet" in our Savior's Gethsemane
of Matthew 26:39.
2. How often does the word "church" appear in the New Testament, and what
significance does this suggest about the word?
3. Give the simple secular use of the word "church" as reflected in the New
Testament. Cite a verse where it is so used.
4. Does the word "church" in its secular sense always refer to a religious
assembly? Does it always refer to a "called out" assembly, one that is called
together for a special purpose?
5. Does the Old Testament contain the concept of an assembly of God's people?
How is this concept translated into Greek?
6. What was the basic meaning of the word "synagogue"?
7. How does James use the Greek words synagogue and ekklesia in his New
8. What new concept was added to the word "church" through the Holy Spirit's
use of it? (See Acts 2:39 and 1 Thessalonians 2:12.)
9. How does God call people to Himself today? Cite passages of Scripture which
support your answer.
10. Explain how Saul was called of God to be a Christian. (See especially Acts
11. How does God call us into His salvation today?
12. Discuss the practical use of the word "church" as it appears in the New