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 did the word first appear, and in what context was it used? Surprisingly, the first mention in the New Testament of the word church wasn’t from the pen of the apostle Paul. Peter didn’t coin the term—nor did any of the other apostles. It was Jesus.
“I will build My church,” Jesus promised (Matthew 16:18). Let’s examine the implications of those five, monosyllable words in this “primary reference.”
Essential Observations to Make
There are at least 4 essential observations we can make from this passage:
- I—Jesus made it clear from the beginning that the church as God intended it would have Christ as its architect. Make no mistake about it, He is the Originator of the church. It was His idea. He protects it. He leads it. He alone is its Head.
- 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. But at the time He spoke these words, Peter and the other disciples had no clue what “church” meant.
- The term build suggests not only a beginning but an ongoing process. If you read music, think of a crescendo mark over Jesus’s 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, and 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.
- The word My affirms ownership and authority. Not only is Christ the Originator of the church and the Builder of it . . . He is also its Head (see Colossians 1:15–18).
Essential Questions to Ask
It’s essential we keep asking ourselves, as I try to do:
- Is Christ the Head of our local church?
- Does He have first place in our ministry?
- Is what we do all about Jesus—or have we drifted from that singular focus?
To guard against erosion, we must keep Jesus as the Head of the church. It is His church. Never forget that.
When Matthew recorded Jesus’s 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, 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. (Matthew 16:16)
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 its origin? Because 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 its foundation.