In the first century, there are no Christian traditions, and we certainly find no denominations or churches. Where we’re imagining ourselves standing, no one has even heard the word church before; and the Jewish culture of the day exists in the context of a pagan Roman government that dominates the land of Israel. On top of all that, the official religious leaders of the day are proud, self-serving and corrupt. It was in such an environment that the church began.
Whenever we want to understand a topic or term such as church, we should begin at the passage of primary reference. It helps to ask where the word first appeared and in what context it was used. Surprisingly, the first mention in the New Testament of the word church wasn’t from the the apostle Paul. Peter didn’t coin the term, nor did any of the other apostles. It was Jesus.
Matthew describes the scene for us. He writes of the time Jesus took His disciples north into the Gentile area of Caesarea Philippi. While there, the Lord asks His men what the public is saying about His identity: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They said, “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “Who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (
The culture around Jesus viewed Him as nothing more than a great man, but Peter voiced a different opinion. Speaking for the disciples as a whole, Peter was never more accurate: “You are the Christ, the Messiah, the Anointed One…the Son of the living God.” Peter nailed it! At that point in the discussion, Jesus changed the dialogue to a monologue and commended Peter for his statement: Blessed are you, Simon Bar Jonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it” (
In commending Simon Peter for his spiritual insight about who Jesus was, the Lord unveiled even more truth about what He would do. In essence, Jesus told Peter, “Your words about Me are true. In fact, they are a foundational statement: like a rock. On this rocklike declaration I will build My church.”
He also promised the gates of Hades would not erode it or erase it. The church would have staying power. Against all odds, it would prevail. Not even the adversary would overpower it. “I will build My church.” Let’s examine the implications of those five monosyllabic words in this primary reference.
First, Jesus made it clear from the beginning that the church as God intended would have Christ as its Architect. Make no mistake—He is the Originator of the church. It was His idea. He protects it. He leads it. He alone is its Head.
Second, the word will looks to the future. Jesus didn’t say, “I have built,” or even, “I am building,” but “I will build.” The church had yet to begin when Jesus made this statement; it was a promise for the future—for the very near future. However, at the time He spoke these words, Peter and the other disciples had no clue what church meant.
Third, the term build suggests not only a beginning but also an ongoing process. If you read music, think of a crescendo mark over Jesus’ statement. Try to imagine the excitement and energy in the Master’s voice as He communicated the future to these disciples. The church would begin at a certain point (we’ll look at that next), then it would grow and grow…and keep on growing. Why? Because Christ will construct it. He will enlarge it and shape it as He pleases.
Fourth, the word My affirms ownership and authority. Not only is Christ the Originator of the church and the Builder of it, but He is also its Head (see
When Matthew recorded Jesus’ word for church—the first mention of that term in the Bible—he chose the Greek word ekklesia. It’s a compound word from ek, meaning “out, from,” and kaleo, meaning “to call.” It refers to those who have been “called out” from among others. The term more accurately reflects an assembly of people defined by a distinct purpose.
The word was in use hundreds of years before Jesus was born, but by adding the word My to the term, Jesus revealed that He would build His own ekklesia—a people defined by faith in the truth that Peter had just revealed: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” We now call this unique assembly over which Jesus serves as Head “the church.” How valuable it is to return to the origin of this term and make a serious examination of its purpose!
Why study the origin of church? Because it’s there we see God’s intention. Our understanding and application of what church should be will erode if we don’t examine and keep in mind its Founder and foundation.
The church is a body of people called out from among the world for the distinct and unique purpose of glorifying their Savior and Lord Jesus Christ. He was not referring to a building on real estate but to a body of individuals who love Christ supremely. This body is without political roots or cultural boundaries; it is devoid of linguistic or racial barriers. It has no denominational or political ties.
A local church is not a business establishment with a cross stuck on top. Rather, the church Jesus promised to build is a spiritual entity, and He alone is the Head. So what did the church look like when Christ began building?
Looking in on the Early Church
Journey forward in our time tunnel about one year. We’re no longer in Caesarea Philippi; we are now in the Holy City of Jerusalem. The religious leaders of Israel and the civil leaders of Rome have condemned Christ to death on a cross, but just as He promised His disciples, Jesus rose from the dead on the third day! Though His enemies did their best to explain away the empty tomb, there He stood; and His presence rejuvenated His followers.
Days later, just before the Lord ascended and returned to heaven, He told His followers to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit (
The apostle Peter stood up and delivered a powerful message to the multitudes of Jerusalem, introducing them to the Messiah Jesus. I love it that the Lord used Peter to share the message. Peter was the one who first called Jesus “the Christ, the Son of the living God”; he was the one to whom Jesus spoke when He first promised to build His church; and remember, it was Peter who had denied Christ just a couple of months before. What grace! Jesus used Peter’s message to reach those first converts in Jerusalem on the day the church began. What a response: “So then, those who had received His word were baptized; and that day there were
added about three thousand souls” (
Notice that when the people heard the good news about Jesus, they received Peter’s message. The original term means they recognized the truth for what it was and believed it. That’s how a person becomes a Christian. That’s how the church is built: You hear of Christ’s death for your sins, and you believe in Him—you receive Him by faith. Those who believed Peter’s message were baptized that day. We read that they numbered about three thousand people. Remarkable!
John R.W. Stott observed, “The body of Christ in Jerusalem multiplied 26 times from 120 to 3,120.” Suddenly, there are three thousand brand-new sheep in God’s flock.
In spite of the numbers and the demands of a group that large, there was still simplicity. There was no tradition, there was no church constitution and bylaws, no programs, no senior pastor, no board of elders, no marketing plan, no splinter groups, no corruption—and no erosion. At least not yet. Instead, we see 3,120 people living their lives with the Spirit of God now living within them and directing their steps. So what did that look like? We’re told precisely what those early believers did when they met together. Look closely: “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (
In this one verse we have the lowest common denominator of a church. This is ground zero. It would help greatly if God’s people reminded themselves of this single verse of Scripture every day. When the first body of believers gathered together, they devoted themselves to four essentials. Did you notice them? Here are the four essentials: teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread and prayer. This verse is not only descriptive of what the early church did; it is also prescriptive of what all churches must do.
For a church to be the kind of church Jesus promised to build, there must be teaching, which of course includes preaching. Teaching is not the same as mere talking, reading poetry, motivational speaking or delivering a positive-thinking-type devotional. We are told here what type of teaching it means: they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching. Today the church has the apostles’ teaching represented in the complete Word of God, the Bible. A church must be devoted continually to the teaching of the sacred Scripture. Teaching God’s truth gives the church deep roots that provide nourishment and stability.
For a church to be the kind of church Jesus promised to build, there has to be fellowship, as well. If we had teaching without fellowship, the church would be a school, a place that dispenses information.
The original term for fellowship is koinonia, which referred to close, mutual relationships where people share things in common and remain involved with one another. That doesn’t mean potluck suppers, dinners on the ground and Christmas concerts. Koinonia represents close relationships that involve sharing life with one another—the bad times and the good. Those in fellowship with one another cultivate an intimate harmony with others. In church, the Word of God is not only learned through teaching but is lived through fellowship.
The breaking of bread is included along with teaching and fellowship. That refers to the Lord’s Table, which was observed when the church gathered. Because baptism was mentioned just before this verse, we understand the early church devoted itself to the two ordinances commanded by Jesus: baptism and the Lord’s Table. The first represents our conversion to Christ, and the second to our lifelong communion with Him. An acceptable, all-inclusive term would be worship. For a church to be the kind of church Jesus promised to build, there must be worship.
Finally, they devoted themselves to prayer. They spent time as a body of believers adoring their Lord, confessing their sins, interceding for others, petitioning God to provide and thanking Him for His blessings just as Jesus taught them to pray. For a church to be the kind of church Jesus promised to build, there must be prayer.
You can’t have a church if you take away any of the four essentials recorded in
Remarkably, the simple setting of the original church provided room for the Spirit of God to work and guide. Don’t misunderstand; a simple setting does not suggest perfect people. These new believers were far from flawless; but by the empowerment of the Spirit of God as He worked and controlled their lives, there was integrity, trust, joy, confidence, unity, generosity, forgiveness, compassion, harmony, stability and grace (to name a few). It must have been magnificent!
Was it working? Just look at the verses that follow: “Day by day continuing with one mind in the temple and breaking bread from house to house, they were taking their meals together with gladness and sincerity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord was adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (
As a result of the believers’ devotion to the essentials, the church continued to expand and grow. Truth be told, the growth was off-the-chart remarkable even in an era of persecution. Look at how the church continued to enlarge as the months and years unfolded:
“But many of those who had heard the message believed; and the number of the men came to be about five thousand” (
“And all the more believers in the Lord, multitudes of men and women, were constantly added to their number” (
“The word of God kept on spreading; and the number of the disciples continued to increase greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests were becoming obedient to the faith” (
“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” (
“So the churches were being strengthened in the faith, and were increasing in number daily” (
Again, the growth was remarkable! In spite of intense opposition and persecution—and sometimes because of it—Christ continued to build His church. Theologian and historian F.F. Bruce calls this phenomenon “the spreading flame.” The growth continued to crescendo, just as Jesus promised; and the adversary—as hard as he may have tried—could not stop it, hinder it or overpower it!
Realizing Some Timeless Truths
Let’s step out of that imaginary time tunnel and return to today. In light of what we have discovered, let me suggest three principles and three imperatives I believe all churches should examine and apply.
The first principle: Clear, biblical thinking must override secular planning and a corporate mentality. The imperative? Think spiritually!
However well-organized our churches become, we must give priority to biblical rather than secular thinking. I’ve talked about what was present in the early church, but let me also mention some of what wasn’t there. There were no secular organizational structures or church politics. There was no guru of authority or chairman of anything. There were no power grabs from control freaks. There were no personal maneuverings, infightings, financial squabbles or turf protection. Instead, we see a place where a spiritual emphasis took precedence over the world’s way of doing things.
What does this look like when applied today? For starters, our teaching needs to be biblically based and spiritually inclined. Our Sunday School classes, adult fellowships and small-group gatherings need to center on the teaching of the Bible and spiritual lessons. Our songs and hymns should have spiritual content. Our counseling ministry needs to be derived from the Spirit’s revelation in Scripture. Our relationships with one another need to have spiritual priorities—intimate fellowship in which people can trust one another. The church ought to be the one place where spiritual thinking overrides everything else—all those battles we fight within the marketplace. Why? Because Jesus Christ is the Head of the church. Remember, the church is a spiritual entity.
Second, studied, accurate decisions must originate from God’s Word, not human opinions. A true, spiritual mindset comes from meditation on Scripture. So the imperative would be: Stay biblical! The Word of God ought to be central to every worship service on Sunday. Furthermore, every elders’ meeting and every staff meeting should have Scripture as the basis for any decisions that are made. God’s Word is to be the church’s guide; it shapes our current thinking and future planning by giving us principles we can understand, believe and apply.
If our churches are committed to these essential dimensions and distinctions, we’ll have the most contagious body of individuals in the community. I remember the words of one of my mentors, the late Ray Stedman: “If the church was doing what it is supposed to be doing, people couldn’t stay out.” Why? If nothing else, curiosity would bring them in! They would witness our love and excitement and think, “Why are so many people flooding into that place? How in the world is there such a spirit of harmony and joy among that many people with such diverse opinions?” What they don’t realize is our opinions don’t matter. What matters is God’s opinion.
I love the words of A.W. Tozer: “The world is waiting to hear an authentic voice—a voice from God—not an echo of what others are doing and saying, but an authentic voice.” As those in the church who follow Christ as our Head, our words must come from the living God and not be an echo of human words or works—certainly not the words from our culture! As wise and intelligent as human opinions are, the church isn’t guided by the thinking of any fallen human being. (By the way, that includes the pastor!)
Christ is the Head. Our thinking is shaped by a study of Scripture—by God’s thinking. This is about building the church God’s way, and God’s way is found in God’s Word. Nowhere else can we find such an authentic voice.
A church that’s working is a church that’s growing. I believe that, but be careful of the order of that statement because a church that is growing is not necessarily a church that is working. I found that out the hard way, which leads me to the final principle.
Third, wise, essential changes must occur to counteract any sign of erosion. Please notice I did not use the word easy. Change is not easy when erosion has occurred, but it is essential. The imperative? Be flexible! Be ready and willing to make some changes—essential changes—especially if you hope to arrest the slow, silent, subtle slide of erosion. Stand alone through those changes if necessary. The poet and artist e.e. cummings wrote, “To be nobody but yourself—in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself—means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight and never stop fighting.”
You may find yourself standing alone against erosion in your church. If so, I commend you; and believe me, that’s not an easy place to be. When I realized the erosion that had already begun to occur in our church—when I realized how far we had drifted from God’s original, simple plan, I prayed: “Oh, God Almighty, give us that original vision again. Give me the courage to lead this flock back to the essentials. Make it happen again! Please give us a church awakening.” He has begun to do so, and it’s been marvelous! However, I repeat: It has not been easy.
Course correction requires changes. Will there be difficulty? Absolutely! Open your New Testament and revisit the early church. Just look at any church! The adversary will stop at nothing to overcome the work of Christ.
All who love (and especially all who lead) the church must evaluate regularly where we are against the eternal, immovable standard of the Word of God. We must pause periodically and honestly question whether any drifting is taking place. Knowing that erosion is always slow, silent and always subtle, we must remind ourselves that it is the primary means by which the church drifts from God’s original intent. The casual eye never will see erosion occurring. The corporate mind will not detect erosion. It takes a keen and disciplined mindset to recognize it and decisive, deliberate action to stop it.
In spite of the challenges the church faces today, erosion does not have to occur, not if we wake up and devote ourselves to doing God’s work God’s way.
From The Church Awakening: An Urgent Call for Renewal by Charles R. Swindoll. Copyright © 2010 by Charles R. Swindoll Inc. Reprinted by permission of FaithWords. All rights reserved.