Summary: This may be one of the most misunderstood concepts in the Christian faith. A look into the word of God in Matthew brings to light the amazing calling that Jesus intends for us.
What is Church?
Listen to Matthew 16:13-28. Pay attention to how Jesus describes "Church," his path, and our relationship with Him.
Matthew 16:18 gives us the first mention of the English word “church” in the New Testament. In all of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John this word “church” only occurs twice. Both are in Matthew (16:18 and 18:17). In the rest of the New Testament the Greek word translated "church" occurs 112 times. “Church” occurs 23 times in Acts, 43 times in Paul’s letters, and 20 times in Revelation, the rest are in the general epistles.
What is church? Actually, our English word “church” comes from two Greek words Kurios and Oikos – or Lord’s House. This has created a problem of understanding, because the word “church” in your New Testament is not from Kurios and Oikos, or Lord’s House, at all! The word the New Testament uses is always and exclusively another word: ekklasia. This word has nothing to do with a house or building at all. It applies to people and the purpose of the assembly. Ekklasia is a compound Greek word: ek – out, and kalos – called, literally ekklasia means “called out.”
This term in classical Greek is almost exclusively used to define a political assembly, like a congressional meeting or in the case of a monarchy the king and his officials. That fits Matthew’s gospel well. Matthew is the kingdom gospel. Jesus is the king and everyone in his kingdom becomes one of his officials! (As 1 Peter 2:9 describes us - a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God). When we come together as ekklasia, it isn’t about a holy place or holy furniture. We are called out, called to join with our King to receive instruction and conduct the affairs of the kingdom of heaven. This word is associated with one biblical book and one deutero-canonical book: Ecclesiastes and Ecclesiasticus. These books bear the name of ekklasia. They have to do with instructions for living under God’s rule and reign with His wisdom.
What is church?
What did Jesus tell us here in Matthew 16? Matthew gives us a context by which to understand "church" from Jesus, our King and Lord’s own instruction. We would be wise to listen to Jesus’ explanation of what he means when he used this word ekklesia in Matthew 16. He has gathered with the disciples at Caesarea Philippi. The king of heaven’s kingdom has called these disciples out. He has called them to come follow him. The first thing Jesus wants to clear up with these disciples is a question of identity: his identity.
Jesus knows that we will never understand what church is until we understand who He is. We can’t understand who we are as ekklesia until we understand who Jesus is. He starts the meeting off with a question: “Who do men say that the Son of man is?” Jesus knows that people are confused about him. He knows that even his disciples are still in the dark about much of his identity, but instead of hitting them with the question directly at first, he asks them to tell him what others are saying about him. What are others saying about who I am? What is Jesus getting at?
How you define Jesus is the foundation of how you define church.
The disciples give Jesus different answers given by different people. Some say this and some say that and some say… People were trying to identify Jesus with familiar concepts. He appeared to them like a prophet. Jesus is a prophet. But much more than a prophet. Jesus is THE prophet. He is also the fulfillment of all that the prophets pointed to as Israel’s ultimate king and Messiah. The people saw Jesus power and heard Jesus teaching with authority and many recognized that Jesus is from God, but the greatest concept they could come up with was that of a prophet. This is not enough for the church Jesus wants to build. Remember here, don’t think of church in terms of a physical structure, but a government, or holy nation. This will require a leadership that is higher and greater than anything familiar to those of that day.
Jesus turns and puts the question to them. What about you? Who do you say that I am?
What is church? Church starts with answering the question: Who is Jesus? Peter gives the answer. In fact, Peter gives an inspired answer! What Peter says didn’t come from himself, it came from the Father in heaven. Peter answered the question of Who is Jesus with a concept that went past everything familiar to Peter. He said, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Peter is saying that Jesus is the king, but more than that, Jesus is the king who is the Son of God. Now that’s a powerful identity! It is the confession of Jesus’ true identity. On this confession Jesus says, “Blessed are you!” This is not from flesh and blood, this is from the Father in heaven! This is the foundation of the church confession! Jesus says, “You are Peter, and upon this Rock I will build my ekklasia, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” At this point, Jesus also enters conversation on the kingdom affairs and begins instructing his disciples in ekklasia business!