We have studied the sections in the Apostles’ Creed about God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. There are a few brief articles left about a number of topics. The first is about the church. Of course, we don’t believe in the church the way we believe in the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. But the church is an essential aspect of the Christian faith.
The church of Jesus
1. The church is built by Jesus
2. The church is about Jesus
3. The church is the body of Jesus
1. The church is built by Jesus
In the theme of this lesson, I speak of “the church of Jesus.” The church is most closely connected to the Son of God. When asked “What do you believe concerning the holy catholic church,” the Catechism answers with a long sentence, but the subject of that sentence is: “The Son of God …” Indeed, the Bible calls the church “the body of Christ” and “the church of Christ.” Likewise, we learn in Col. 1:18 and Eph. 5:23 that Jesus Christ is the “head of the church.”
It is Jesus who builds his church. He said so himself in Mat. 16:18: “On this rock I will build my church.” Let us explore what Jesus meant by this.
First of all, this is the first time in the gospels that the word “church” is mentioned. In the original Greek text, the word is ekklêsia; and that word is also used in the Old Testament, to refer to the assembly or congregation of God’s people in the time of Moses, or the time of Ezra and Nehemiah. We may therefore define “church” as the community of believers as they gather together for worship and fellowship.
Jesus said that he would build this church “on this rock”. Some people think that Jesus meant Peter, so that Peter would be the first leader or “pope” of the church. After all, Jesus had given Peter his nickname—”Peter” means “Rock”. But we should understand that Jesus’ proclamation was a response to what Peter had said before. Peter, on behalf of all the disciples, had made a clear confession of his faith: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” This confession, that Jesus is the Christ, is now the rock on which the church will be built. This confession will be the basis of the whole Christian church.
Jesus’ work of building the church has many aspects. The catechism mentions three: The Son of God … gathers, defends, and preserves for himself … a church. Jesus gathers people, brings them together to be the church. He defends the church, against all attacks from the devil and the world, and often even from sinners inside. He preserves the church, making sure that she will always be there until the very end.
Because the church is not a random thing, where believers happen to do some things together. Our King Jesus deliberately works to bring people together as his church. He actively protects us from all kinds of evil. He purposefully keeps the church safe, so that it never disappears completely. The church is an integral part of God’s plan of salvation. If you ignore the church, if you don’t participate in its worship or fellowship, if you don’t actually spend time with the other believers, you are likely to miss out on much that is important.
At the beginning of its answer, the catechism says two things about the church of Jesus. First, Jesus gathers and preserves his church from the beginning of the world to its end. This may sound strange; after all, when Jesus announced that he would build his church, hadn’t many centuries passed already? It is true that the explicitly Christian church began when Jesus was on earth, and was first publicly revealed on Pentecost Day. But the many believers who lived before Christ are also part of the church, in the broader sense. Even though they did not understand the details about the Saviour and could only look forward to his coming, they were saved through the same faith, through the same precious blood of Jesus. You see that very clearly if you read Hebrews 11, which lists Abel and Noah and Abraham and Jacob and so on, and compares their faith to that of the Christian church.
Therefore we may say that the church began with Adam and Eve, at the beginning of history; and the church will continue to the end. When Jesus returns, there will be a church on earth; and all believers of past, present, and future will then be joined together, forming the population of a perfectly renewed world. That is where the church is headed. The church is a central part in all of history, through which the Kingdom of God has been visible on earth from the very beginning.
Second, Jesus gathers his church out of the whole human race. Not that everybody in the world is a member of the church. But the church contains, in principle, people from all kinds of backgrounds. Any race, any ethnicity, any nationality, and so on. Jesus told his apostles to
“make disciples of all nations” (Mat. 28:19), and that worldwide project of two-thousand years is still going on.
This is, by the way, what the Apostles’ Creed means when it says: “I believe a holy, catholic church.” When you hear the word “catholic” you may think about the “Roman Catholic Church”, a large religious community that, we believe, has serious errors in their understanding of the gospel. We are not “Roman Catholic”. But the word “catholic” simply means: “worldwide.” That word we continue to use. We affirm that we are part of the “catholic” church, the worldwide assembly of Christian believers.
So we see that the church is a magnificent work of God, especially of our Lord Jesus Christ. We don’t put it together; he did, and still does. The Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends, and preserves for himself a church.
2. The church is about Jesus
Who, exactly, belongs to the church? There is a simple, basic answer to this question. But after that basic answer, we have to discuss some details, because the word “church” is not always used the same way.
The basic answer is given by the catechism: Jesus builds in the unity of true faith a church chosen to everlasting life. Therefore the members of the church are those who have true faith in Jesus, and who have been chosen to be saved. There is no contradiction between these two things, because God gives faith to everybody he has chosen, and no one can be saved without God giving him that faith.
If you have true faith in Jesus, you receive everything he earned through his work: forgiveness of sins, a new life, the Holy Spirit, and so on. In short, if you have true faith in Jesus, you are being saved. And that, in principle, defines who belongs to the church. In the words of the Belgic Confession: “The one catholic or universal church is a holy congregation and assembly of the true Christian believers, who expect their entire salvation in Jesus Christ, are washed by his blood, and are sanctified and sealed by the Holy Spirit.” It is “the assembly of the redeemed.” (BC Art. 27, 28).
Faith in Jesus defines membership in the church. Faith in Jesus also defines the unity of the church. There is only one holy, catholic Christian church, because there is only one Saviour Jesus Christ, and only one faith. The Bible often speaks about this one church in lofty language, as the body of Christ and the bride of Christ.
Now we need to add some important comments. The first is, that we also use the word “church” for the believers in a specific part of the world; or even more generally, for any group of believers that meet together for worship. The Bible uses this language when it speaks, for instance, of “the church in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1:2) or “the church at someone’s house” (Rom. 16:5; Phm. :2). From that perspective there are many churches. But this does not contradict what we said before. All these “local” churches are part of the one church of Jesus, and in practice the one, worldwide church is made up of many local churches.
Second, when talking about Jesus’ one church, we should not make it abstract. Some people say: I don’t really care to be part of an actual congregation, but I am part of Jesus’ church. Some people argue that it doesn’t matter that we have different kinds of churches, but only the fact that there are true believers in all of them. This idea disconnects Jesus’ one church from the actual groups that meet together for worship; the church becomes an “invisible” church. But the worldwide church of Jesus, and its members, must be visible as worshipping congregations. You cannot be a Christian individually without joining an actual church. In the words of an ancient church father: “Outside of the church there is no salvation.”
Third, there are people who are in the church but not of the church. They come to the services, are on the membership role, may even participate in committees, but do not have real faith in Jesus. Some may be children, who have not yet real faith. But some may be hypocrites, who refuse to commit their lives to God yet pretend they do. We may call them church members—but they do not share in what the church is really about, and that is unity with Jesus Christ and true faith. Because of this, we always must speak about the church in two ways: about her ideal identity, as the assembly of true believers and God’s elect; and about her current state, as a group of people where many, but not all, have real faith.
Fourth, in practice the church situation is complicated. Ideally, we would like all parts of the church of Jesus to know each other and work together. In reality, there are many federations of churches that go more or less their own ways. In some cases it is perfectly clear why: when a group has twisted the teaching of the Bible and dishonours the Lord Jesus in practice, we should not recognize them as a real part of the church. In other cases, it is more difficult to see: we may be churches with a different background, a different history, and different practices, yet we both serve the Lord seriously, and there are no significant errors. We then must recognize the unity of faith that we have, as parts of Jesus’ one church, even if it is difficult in practice to join together. And it is a challenge to find out to what extent we can or should worship and work together.
All of this means that it is not always easy to recognize where the church is. But the principle should be clear: Jesus has one church, and the many churches that are part of it find their unity and fellowship in him alone.
The church is all about Jesus. This is also clear in the way she lives and grows. The catechism says that Jesus gathers, defends, and preserves his church by his Spirit and Word. The Holy Spirit gives people faith in Jesus, and grows the love among members of the church. Much of that work is done through “the Word”. By the Word we mean the gospel, as we find it in the Bible; and the preaching of that gospel, as it happens in the worship services. Ultimately, Jesus himself is the Word, and he shapes his church from week to week, from day to day.
We have now learned from the catechism that the church is all about Jesus. The Son of God, out of the whole human race, from the beginning of the world to its end, gathers, defends, and preserves for himself by his Spirit and Word, in the unity of true faith, a church to eternal life.
3. The church is the body of Jesus
But now that we know what the church is, and who is in charge of it, the catechism also wants us to make it personal. We should not keep the church at arm’s length, but be part of it. So the catechism teaches us, believers to say: And I believe that I am and forever shall remain a living member of it.
We are used to talking about a “member” of an organisation. We rarely think about the fact that “member” originally means “body part”. Your arms and legs are your members. The Bible compares the church of Jesus to a body. “Just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. […] You are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” (1 Cor. 12:12,27)
This is a powerful picture. It shows how important the church is. If Jesus is the head and the church is the rest of the body, it is clear that church is not optional; you cannot have a head without body! The picture of the church as the body also suggests that while Jesus Christ as our head is in charge, we as the members do the work for him on earth. It is through the church that Jesus is still speaking and acting in this world. We are his hands and feet.
The picture of a body also suggests that we need each other. Paul discusses that in the rest of 1 Corinthians 12, and we will discuss it in the next lesson. The communion of the saints, as we call our active life together, is an essential part of the church.
Are you a member of the church? Maybe you say: yes, because my parents were believers. Or: yes, because I was baptised. Or: yes, because I am on the membership list. Note that the catechism teaches us to say: I am a living member of the church. I am part of Jesus’ body, but I am not paralyzed; I do my work for him. I participate in the activities of the church. I join other believers in worship and thanksgiving. I sing and pray with them. I actively listen to the preaching of God’s word and participate in Bible studies. I help others and tell about Jesus to the people around me. A living member of the church doesn’t just warm up the pew, or just logs in to the live stream, but participates for real, out of true faith and love for God.If you are a real member of the church, a true believer in Christ, then you can trust that God will give you eternal life. As the catechism says, I forever shall remain a living member of the church. Because the church is, in the end, those who will join Jesus on the new earth.
- What is the meaning of the word church (Gr. ekklêsia)?
- On what “rock” did Jesus say he would build his church?
- When did the Son of God begin building his church?
- What does it mean to say that the church is catholic?
- When does a person belong to the church?
- Are all church members chosen to everlasting life?
- What keeps the church alive and growing?
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||Nehemiah 8:1-12. Find similarities between this “assembly” and the church today.|
|Tuesday||Matthew 16:13-19. What promise did Jesus make about the church?|
|Wednesday||Acts 9:1-31. In this chapter, how did Jesus protect his church? How did he build his church? See esp. v. 31.|
|Thursday||1 Corinthians 1. What is the church (v. 2)? What unites it (v. 4-9)? What threatens its unity (v. 10ff)?|
|Friday||Ephesians 3. What remarkable task does the church have, according to v. 10?|
|Saturday||Colossians 1:15-29. Who is the head of the church? (v. 18) What is the “mystery” of the church? (v. 27)|