Calvary Road Baptist Church

“THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST: ITS MEANING”

 

It is important for God’s people to take special care when handling truth related to His creative activities. Anytime a creative act is considered it should be a matter of the profoundest importance to us, recognizing that there are ramifications throughout time and eternity. Allow me to cite several examples:

First, of course, is God’s ex nihilo creation of the time-space-matter continuum that is referred to in Genesis 1.1, ex nihilo meaning that God created it out of nothing, with no preexisting materials:

 

“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”

 

Psalm 33.6 is among a number of other verses that also refer to the LORD’s creative activity with respect to the physical universe in which we live:

 

“By the word of the LORD were the heavens made; and all the host of them by the breath of his mouth.”

 

However, it is in the New Testament that we learn more detail concerning God’s creative activity, that it was the Second Person of the Godhead who was the immediate agent of this universe’s beginning, with John 1.2 among those passages that shed additional light:[1]

 

“All things were made by him; and without him [Christ] was not any thing made that was made.”

 

If you consider God’s creation of Adam and Eve as the culmination of His activity of bringing the physical universe into existence, then the second thing God created was the human family, consisting of one man and one woman brought together in the Garden of Eden in a covenant relationship that also included the physical union of two distinct individuals, one of them a man and the other one a woman. That the physical union of a man and a woman does not in and of itself constitute marriage, and that the dissolution of a marriage by divorce is a profoundly serious matter, is abundantly clear in the Bible.[2] Sex outside marriage is wicked and the destruction of a marriage is also wicked.

Moving on to a third example of God’s creative work, let us pause for just a moment along the way to consider human government. A quick look at the first human government in Genesis chapter 11 that was headed by Nimrod shows that it was brought into existence in rebellion against God. Nevertheless, in both the Old Testament and the New Testament we are shown that while God did not bring the concept of human government into existence, He nevertheless makes use of human governments and exercises sovereign rule over them to accomplish His purposes. That is why we should, insofar as we can without compromising our convictions, strive to be the best citizens in subjection to our government that we can in good conscience be.[3]

Now to the third thing God created, after creating the universe and all that herein is, and after creating the family unit, marriage. The third thing God created is Israel, by calling Abram from Ur of the Chaldees, by establishing the Abrahamic Covenant, by giving to him an heir named Isaac and then giving to Isaac an heir named Jacob, who sired Israel’s twelve patriarchs.[4] The majority of the Bible is devoted to God’s dealings with the Jewish people, the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. It was into the Jewish tribe of Judah the Lord Jesus Christ would be born, and it will be in part to fulfill promises made to Abraham that the glorified and exalted Lord Jesus Christ will return to this old world in power and great glory someday.

However, it is while the virgin born Son of the living God was here that He accomplished two tasks, one task being accomplished during the course of His earthly ministry and the other being accomplished at the very end of His earthly ministry. Just a word about His second accomplishment before we turn to our Lord’s first accomplishment: It was the primary reason for His coming, to take upon Himself the sins of others, to offer Himself a sinless sacrifice for those sins, and to conquer sin, death, Hell and the grave by means of His glorious victory of resurrection. Of course, He then ascended to His Father’s right hand where He is presently enthroned until the time of His second coming in power and great glory.[5] That is what deservedly gets most of the attention. That is the ground for our salvation from sins, our forgiveness, and the impartation to us of new life in Christ. That is the gospel. There is something wrong whenever attention to these great matters of His virgin birth, His sinless life, His substitutionary sacrifice, the shedding of His blood, His glorious resurrection, and His ascension as a prelude to His second coming is neglected to focus for long on matters of less importance. Nevertheless, it is to something less important than these great matters that we now turn.

I speak, of course, of the first creative thing our Lord Jesus Christ did during the course of His earthly ministry, which was to bring into being the church of Jesus Christ, what He termed “my church.”[6] In recent sermons I have shown the church of Jesus Christ to be important though not most important, to be a mystery, and to be spiritual,[7] to be His,[8] and to have been brought into existence by Him sometime during His earthly ministry.[9] Bringing the church of Jesus Christ into existence was a creative act. The Savior brought into existence something that did not exist before, though He did so by making use of already existing components, those components being His apostles. What I have not addressed to this point is precisely what it was the Lord Jesus Christ brought into existence when He brought the church of Jesus Christ into being. What did He make when He made what He made? We know it is His. We know it is something of a mystery. We know it is spiritual, having an impact both in heaven and throughout eternity. What we will consider this evening is what did the Lord Jesus Christ mean when He said “my church”? We already know what the word “my” means; it’s His. He made it and it belongs to Him. The word “my” declares ownership. However, we do not yet know what is meant by the term “church.” What adds confusion to this subject is the fact that our English word church is derived from words that have disparate meanings. The etymology of the word church is as follows: Church is a word derived from the Middle English word chirche or cherche. Before that word appeared we have the Late Greek word kyriakon which in turn developed from the word kyriake, meaning the Lord’s house.[10] As you may have noticed, the word church and the words from which it is derived have always referred to a building, a structure, a facility of some kind. However, though the word church is found in the New Testament it translates a word that never, ever has anything to do with a structure, a building, or a facility of any kind, the word ekklhsia. That is why I would like for that which is located at 319 West Olive Avenue to be referred to as a church house, so we can once and for all time be rid of any reference to church in the New Testament being thought of as a building.

What we can be sure of, and what no credible Bible scholar who has ever lived has questioned or in any way challenged, is that the New Testament Greek word ekklhsia, used by the Lord Jesus Christ and by the apostles, though for some reason translated in our Bibles by the English word church, never ever refers to a physical building or a structure. Thus, while the Lord Jesus Christ did say “my church,” mou thn ekklhsian, and although the Apostle Paul, the writer of Hebrews, and the Lord Jesus Christ in John’s Revelation did make use of the word ekklhsia, they never used the word in the sense of a physical building of any kind.

That said, and now having a feel for what the Greek word translated church did not mean, we now turn to a consideration of what the word did mean:

 

First, THE PRE-CHRISTIAN CONCEPTION OF THIS WORD EKKLHSIA


Of course, we must recognize that we are dealing with two different cultures in the pre-Christian era, therefore we will try to grasp two different groups’ conception of the term:

First, the Greek’s conception of the term. After all, ekklhsia is a Greek word. Turning to Bauer and Danker’s standard work, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, published by The University of Chicago Press in 2000, the opening statement for the Greek word ekklhsia reads, “a regularly summoned legislative body, assembly, as gener. understood in the Gr-Rom, world.”[11] Turning to Kittel’s Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, we see that ekklhsia in secular Greek denoted a popular assembly. “From the time of Thuc., Plat. and Xenoph., and especially in inscriptions, ekklhsia is the assembly. . . . The etymology is both simple and significant. The citizens are the ekklhtoi, i.e., those who are summoned and called together by the herald.”[12] The verb form of the word, ekklhsiazw, has to do with the activity of holding an assembly or of convening an assembly; assembling.[13] Thus, you will not find the word used by Greeks prior to the time of Christ in a way that did not explicitly refer to a group of people who gathered.

Now, we turn to the Jewish conception of the term ekklhsia. Keeping in mind there were Jewish communities in Greek speaking regions, it is important to grasp how those Jewish people understood the meaning of the ekklhsia and how they used the term. The word ekklhsia occurs about 100 times in the LXX. When there is a Hebrew equivalent, it is almost always a particular word, lhq, meaning assembly or congregation.[14] In the LXX ekklhsia is a wholly secular term; it means “assembly,” whether in the sense of assembling or of those assembled. Only the addition kuriou makes it plain that the ekklhsia is the people or congregation of God.

What you might notice to be missing from both the Greek and the Greek speaking Jewish conception of this term in pre-Christian times that is translated by the word church is any notion of abstraction. Ekklhsia is a concrete term and was always understood and used in a concrete way in pre-Christian times by those who understood and spoke Greek.

 

Next, THE SAVIOR’S CONCEPTION OF THE WORD EKKLHSIA


We must grant that the Lord Jesus Christ’s use of the term during His earthly ministry is recorded in only two passages. Yet our glorified Lord did use the word a number of times in John’s Revelation. Why don’t we quickly look at each of those New Testament verses to get an idea what our Lord’s conception of the word ekklhsia happened to be?

 

Matthew 16.18:   “And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.”

 

Matthew 18.17:   “And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”

 

Revelation 1.4:     “John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne.”

 

Revelation 1.11:    “Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.”

 

Revelation 1.20:    “The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.”

 

Revelation 2.1:      “Unto the angel of the church of Ephesus write; These things saith he that holdeth the seven stars in his right hand, who walketh in the midst of the seven golden candlesticks.”

 

Revelation 2.7:      “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the tree of life, which is in the midst of the paradise of God.”

 

Revelation 2.8:      “And unto the angel of the church in Smyrna write; These things saith the first and the last, which was dead, and is alive.”

 

Revelation 2.11:    “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; He that overcometh shall not be hurt of the second death.”

 

Revelation 2.12:    “And to the angel of the church in Pergamos write; These things saith he which hath the sharp sword with two edges.”

 

Revelation 2.17:    “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches; To him that overcometh will I give to eat of the hidden manna, and will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no man knoweth saving he that receiveth it.”

 

Revelation 2.18:    “And unto the angel of the church in Thyatira write; These things saith the Son of God, who hath his eyes like unto a flame of fire, and his feet are like fine brass.”

 

Revelation 2.23:    “And I will kill her children with death; and all the churches shall know that I am he which searcheth the reins and hearts: and I will give unto every one of you according to your works.”

 

Revelation 2.29:    “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”

 

Revelation 3.1:      “And unto the angel of the church in Sardis write; These things saith he that hath the seven Spirits of God, and the seven stars; I know thy works, that thou hast a name that thou livest, and art dead.”

 

Revelation 3.6:      “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”

 

Revelation 3.7:      “And to the angel of the church in Philadelphia write; These things saith he that is holy, he that is true, he that hath the key of David, he that openeth, and no man shutteth; and shutteth, and no man openeth.”

 

Revelation 3.13:    “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”

 

Revelation 3.14:    “And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write; These things saith the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the beginning of the creation of God.”

 

Revelation 3.22:    “He that hath an ear, let him hear what the Spirit saith unto the churches.”

 

Revelation 22.16:    “I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.”

 

May I point out several things so patently obvious that they are all but ignored?

First, when the Lord Jesus Christ first used the word church in Matthew 16.18 He used a term known to everyone who spoke Greek without in any way stating, suggesting, or implying the word should be understood differently than they already understood it, a concrete term meaning assembly.

Second, when the Lord Jesus Christ used the term church a second time, with reference to dealing with sin in Matthew 18.15-20, instruction was given to “tell it unto the church,” in verse 17, a directive that can only be obeyed if the church is an actual assembly of people to whom one can speak.

Third, of those verses in Revelation where the word is used our Lord made reference to churches (plural) in twelve verses and addressed His remarks to individual congregations using the singular word church in seven of them. Therefore, He obviously had no conception of the word church (ekklhsia) being anything other than as a concrete word referring to a specific assembly or to assemblies.

 

Third, THE APOSTOLIC CONCEPTION OF THE WORD EKKLHSIA


There is no indication in the gospels that our Lord Jesus Christ used the Greek word translated church in any way different than it was already understood, in concrete reference to an assembly. There is no indication in the Revelation that our Lord Jesus Christ used the Greek word translated church in any way different than it was already understood, in concrete reference to an assembly when speaking to the angel of a specific church or assemblies when referring to multiple congregations. He never used the term in reference to all Christians.

When we come to Acts and the epistles we find the word translated church used in ninety verses.[15] Did the writers of the New Testament understand the word ekklhsia differently than secular Greek speakers of their day? If so, why does it seem the Lord Jesus Christ, during both His earthly ministry and after His resurrection and exaltation, make use of the word in a manner entirely consistent with already existing secular usage, to denote concrete reference to an assembly or assemblies, a congregation or congregations?

Notice that I have made no attempt to arrive at a meaning of the word ekklhsia by dividing that compound word into its separate components, because that is a faulty way of attempting to understand a word.[16] After all, you derive no understanding of what a pineapple means by consideration of the two words used to form it. The meaning of a word is utterly dependent upon how the word is actually used.

Therefore, not having the time during this message from God’s Word to examine each and every use of the word ekklhsia in Acts and the epistles, I submit to you that the word is only and always used exclusively to designate a single congregation, a group of congregations, or the concept of the church as an institution, such as when the Lord Jesus Christ said, “I will build my church.”

 

Finally, THE ERRONEOUS CONCEPTION OF THE WORD EKKLHSIA


It has come to be over the past few centuries, especially since the Protestant Reformation in Europe, that the term church (ekklhsia) has come to mean in the minds of Christians the entirety of those individuals who know Jesus Christ as their Savior.

My unproven opinion is that the Lutheran and Reformed apologists responded to the Roman Catholic Church’s claim of being the universal visible church of Jesus Christ on earth by insisting that they comprised the universal invisible church of Jesus Christ on earth. While granting that the Protestant Reformation reemphasized the doctrine of justification by faith as being central to the gospel, I contend that no proper understanding of the word ekklhsia as it is used in the Bible allows for it to be understood except as a concrete term for actual congregations or with reference to the church as an institution.

I contend that the word church is never in the New Testament used as a descriptive term to refer to all Christians, to an invisible group of all believers. Further, I challenge those who suggest the church is an invisible and universal group of all believers to explain why there is no evidence of the Savior so conceiving of the word either before or after the apostles wrote what they wrote using the term.

 

I will grant that there are words used in the New Testament that were taken from regular usage in the world of that day and infused with new or additional meaning, were used to communicate profound and sublime truths that stretch man’s understanding of spiritual things. The Greek word agaph is just such a word, translated charity and love in our Bible. However, crucial to our understanding of some Bible truths is recognizing the Biblical use of certain terms strictly according to their usage outside the Bible. Such are words like justification and faith. Indeed, the Roman Catholic Church is so very wrong about salvation in part because they have drifted away from an understanding of what those words meant by Greek speakers of that day and have erroneously infused into the Bible’s use of those words entirely new meanings.[17]

I contend that same error has taken place with the word ekklhsia. Protestants wrongly suppose the word that translates church in the New Testament sometimes refers to a concept never imagined by anyone who originally used the word, a concept never imagined by the Lord Jesus Christ when He used the word before and after His resurrection, and a concept never imagined by the writers of the New Testament. The idea of a universal invisible church comprised of those who have trusted Christ and who have supposedly been Spirit-baptized into an invisible body of believers has been foisted upon the Bible. It is not actually taught in the Bible. What, then, is the church of Jesus Christ? It is a body of born again, scripturally baptized believers in Jesus Christ who have been brought together by God to worship, to serve, to administer the ordinances of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and to engage in fulfillment of the Great Commission.



[1] John 1.10; Ephesians 3.9; Colossians 1.16; Hebrews 1.2

[2] John 4.16-18; 1 Corinthians 6.9-20; Matthew 5.31-32; 19.3-9

[3] 2 Samuel 12.8; Jeremiah 27.5f; Daniel 2.21, 37f; 4.17, 25, 32; 5.21; Romans 13.1

[4] Genesis 12-50

[5] Psalm 16.11; 110.1; Matthew 26.64; Mark 12.36; 14.62; 16.19; Luke 20.42; 22.69; John 3.13; 13.1; 14.2-4; Acts 2.33, 34-35; 7.56; Romans 8.34; Ephesians 1.20; Colossians 3.1; Second Thessalonians 1.7; Hebrews 1.3, 13; 8.1; 9.24; 10.12-13; 12.2; 1 Peter 3.22; Revelation 19.11

[6] Matthew 16.16

[7] http://www.calvaryroadbaptist.org/sermon.php?sermonDate=20150201b

[8] http://www.calvaryroadbaptist.org/sermon.php?sermonDate=20150208b

[9] http://www.calvaryroadbaptist.org/sermon.php?sermonDate=20150215b

[10] Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1996), page 324.

[11] Bauer, Danker, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and other Early Christian Literature, (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2000), page 303.

[12] Gerhard Kittel, Editor, Theological Dictionary Of The New Testament, Vol III, (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), page 513.

[13] Bauer, page 304.

[14] Francis Brown, S. R. Driver & Charles A. Briggs, The New Brown-Driver-Briggs-Gesenius Hebrew And English Lexicon, (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1979), page 874.

[15] W. F. Moulton and H. K. Moulton, editors, A Concordance to the Greek Testament According to the Texts of Westcott and Hort, Tischendorf and the English Revisers, (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1978), pages 316-317.

[16] Moises Silva, Biblical Words And Their Meanings: An Introduction To Lexical Semantics, (Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1983), pages 44-51.

[17] “Augustine was the first of the Church Fathers to seriously delve into grace and doctrines other than Trinitarian issues. His teaching has affected the RCC, Lutherans, and Anglo-Catholics right up until today.” “Since he [Augustine] was not familiar with Greek, he misunderstood dikaioo to mean ‘to make righteous’ instead of ‘to declare righteous.” - David R. Anderson, Free Grace Soteriology, (Grace Theology Press, Revised Edition edited by James S. Reitman, 2012), pages 224, 226.


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