Hopefully you know already that each of the four Gospels have a different set of emphases in their respective portraits of the Savior. To Mark he was the Suffering Servant, to Luke he was the Son of Man sent to save Jews and Gentiles alike. To John he’s the eternal Son of God sent from the Father to fulfill the mission the Father gave him. And to Matthew he’s the Jewish Messiah, the ultimate fulfillment of Moses and the Prophets.
That’s why it’s a little ironic that the first mention of the word “church” is found in Matthew’s Gospel. Of course Israel was the embodiment of God’s people on earth during the O.T. period, and in a broad sense they were the “church.” That's because literally the word means “called out ones” or assembly. The Greek word ekklesia was used of a rough equivalent of a “town hall” meeting when all the citizens of a city were “called out” to discuss issues. So Israel qualifies in that they were “called out” from the rest of the world to be his representatives to the rest of humanity.
So let's get our terms straight here. The word "church" sometimes refers 1) to a local collection of (professing) believers, such as the "the church of the Thessalonians." Quite often, however, the Bible refers to it as 2) the mystical collection of all true believers worldwide and throughout history (for example here). A local body of believers is the local expression of the universal Body of Christ. It is impossible for you to be a true believer--to be saved--and not to be part of the Church in the second sense. It is possible--and unfortunately happens sometimes in real life--for a person to be a believer in Jesus and yet be separated from the Church in sense #1. I'd also submit that it's virtually impossible for you to have a healthy relationship with your Savior and not be plugged into a local expression of his Body, but that's another issue.
And of course, while I understand the need for shorthand in daily usage, strictly speaking the term "church" is never used in Scripture for the building we happen to meet in. There really wasn't such a thing as what we'd call church buildings for about 300 years after the Church was born, so it'd be pretty anachronistic if the Bible ever referred to a building as such.
But really the concept of the “church” as we know it is something that God only revealed with Christ. That’s why Paul called it a “mystery” in Ephesians, because the idea of a universal body of believers—where Jew and Gentile are equal partners—was hinted at but not really fully revealed in the O.T. Jesus mentioned it a couple of times (in today's reading and here), and then it came into full bloom in the book of Acts. But in the Gospel expressly written first to a Jewish audience, it’s a little surprising that we find its first reference here. So what do we know about it from today’s reading?
• The Church is built by Christ: “I will build.” Yes, we have a part that God gives us in the endeavor. But ultimately the Church is being constructed by Jesus himself. Any evangelistic projects or outreach events or new ways of presenting the Good News are all well and good. I’m totally in favor of them. But anything that isn’t initiated by, and empowered by, and guided by the Lord Jesus? I want no part of it. I’d just be wasting my time anyway.
• The Church is owned by Jesus: “I will build my church.” My friend, you do not own your church. Some folks seem to think that by giving money and investing in the church they somehow have part ownership in it. Or maybe the pastor might call it “my church.” If you mean it in the sense of "the local collection of believers with whom I'm associated," then that's fine. But whether it comes implicitly or explicitly, the notion that the church in any sense is your possession is a lie. She's completely claimed by Someone Else, and it's not you.
• The Church will—in the end—succeed. He said plainly that "the gates of Hades will not overcome it." You can invest in all sorts of things on earth, and none of them are a sure thing. As we've learned over the years, the stock market can implode while you watch. Land, bonds, or titles or any other investment can fail. But if you invest in Kingdom work, you’re investing in something that is sure to pay back a thousand-fold.
Now of course, our Lord is talking here about the Church in the sense of the universal Body of all true believers, not its local expression (like the First Methodist Church of Wherever). I've been a part of a local body of believers which eventually "failed" and had to be folded into another local body of believers. Just like in the individual Churches in the 2nd and 3rd chapters of Revelation, it's entirely possible for a local body of believers to fade away and eventually close down. But the Church universal carries on and will be quite alive and doing quite well when all her enemies are dead and have been roasting for a million years.
Influenced by our popular culture, people tend to think of God (or good) and Satan (or evil) as being in an eternal conflict, and they tend to envision it as a struggle between equal and opposite forces. It’s not. Jesus makes it clear: There are two kingdoms in conflict, but one is constantly gaining ground, and the other’s losing it. Please note: He said the gates of Hades will not prevail against his church. Have you ever been attacked by a gate? Of course not, because a gate is a means of defense. There is a kingdom under siege, and it’s not Jesus’. Every day, when someone gives their heart to the Savior, the Enemy’s kingdom shrinks a little bit more. And one day—hopefully soon—our Lord will say “OK, that’s enough!” and just crash the gates down once and for all.
So does any of this have a particular application to you? I urge you to go back over the three bullet points and ask yourself if you need a change of perspective. Do you?
Lord Jesus, when I look at the world today, pretty often it looks like the Church is losing ground. I know it’s not, but that’s how it looks. Please change my perspective. Let me see a little more of the big picture. I really need it sometimes.
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