Vol. 5, No. 10
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All that is involved in the Lord's simple promise, "I will build my church" (Matthew 16:18), is beyond human comprehension. From everlasting to everlasting is its scope. Fascinating and gripping is a study of the universe's greatest institution. In a realm alone it stands by itself, unique, solitary, a sui generius, a monogenes, the only one of its kind.
The word on Jesus' lips in his promise to erect his church, ekklesia (a "called-out group"), was not unique, and by itself, it has no religious or sacred meaning. To the Greeks a group of people "called out" for a town meeting or to see an Olympic race would be named an ekklesia. Luke employed the word in describing an angry mob seeking to kill Paul (Acts 19:32, 41, where it is translated not "church" but "assembly"). Also, just as an unlawful assembly could be styled an ekklesia, so a lawful assembly the Ephesian town clerk designated as an ekklesia (Acts 19:39). Furthermore, a large group of Israelites (called out of Egypt by Moses into a wilderness) Stephen described as an ekklesia (Acts 7:38, mistranslated "church" in the KJV and the ASV).
To us the word ekklesia becomes exceedingly important because Jesus used it to refer to those people whom he would call out of the world to live only for him (Matthew 11:26-28; 2 Corinthians 5:14-15). They would be sinners called by the Gospel to a new life of righteousness (Romans 6:1-17; 2 Thessalonians 2:14). The idea Jesus presented is of the highest importance, but the word he used to set it forth was not unique.
There are least five ways that the New Testament church is in a realm to itself, the one of its kind.
"The eternal purpose" which God purposed in Christ Jesus our Lord for a long time "was not made known to the sons of men" (Ephesians 3:5, 11). From of old men knew from what the prophets had said that something stupendous was coming. "Many prophets and righteous men desired to see" and to hear about what God was planning (Matthew 13:17). But no eye had seen, nor had any ear heard, and no heart had imagined the things God had "prepared for them that love him" (Isaiah 64:4; 1 Corinthians 2:9). Prophets themselves "sought and searched diligently" to no avail until "the fulness of time" had come (Galatians 4:4; 1 Peter 1:10). Even angels were in suspense, but they were not lacking in interest. The divine plan of the ages they desired "to look into" (parakupsai, just as Mary "stooped and looked" into the tomb) (1 Peter 1:12; John 20:11).
That the Gentiles, also a part of God's creation and precious to him, should, along with the Jews, be "fellow-heirs, and fellow-members of the body, and fellow-partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel" was a glorious revelation (Ephesians 3:6). In due time the uncovering of the eternal purpose was made known by the Spirit to the "holy apostles and prophets" (Ephesians 3:5). Then that combined group of sinners, Jew and Gentiles, now redeemed and forgiven through the Gospel, now brothers together in one family, now members of one body, the church, that unified called-out group the angels in heaven could finally see!
As a result, they praised God for his matchless wisdom in effecting so glorious a project. As a quilt on exhibition at the state fair, displaying a lady's careful and beautiful handiwork, gives glory to its maker, so the church, without blemish and without spot, is a living exhibit of what God is able to perfect. The many strands of his divine wisdom are reflected brilliantly when one's eyes fall on the incomparable church. Nothing like it is known to man or angel.
That combined group of called-out peoples, the whole family in heaven and on the earth, living and dead, before or after the cross, that group was paid for by the Savior's blood (Acts 20:28; Ephesians 3:15; Hebrews 9:15; 11:40). Church members have been redeemed, not by corruptible things, as silver and gold, but by the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without spot and without blemish, foreknown indeed before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:18-19).
In the moonlight of Gethsemane, with Jesus' face on the ground, displaying "strong crying and tears," being in "an agony," with his sweat like "great drops of blood falling down upon the ground," praying the Father who loved him to remove the impending blood-letting, nobody could ever ask, "Could God have thought of any other way to save sinners? to buy the church?" (Matthew 26:39; Luke 22:44; Hebrews 5:7).
Truly, the purchase price of the church is one of its unique features. Genuine church members praise him who loved them and washed them from their sins by his blood (Revelation 1:5). They cannot understand how an alleged Christian denomination can be so unappreciative of Calvary as to purge from its hymnals any reference to blood.
Church members have a quality belonging to no other organization: they are a saved group, enjoying the assurance that their sins have been forgiven. From their souls their guilt has been placed on the head of Jesus as a scapegoat. Thank God, he has carried their sins "into the wilderness" far away (Leviticus 16:20-22). A God whose word is sure has promised that their iniquities he will remember no more (Hebrews 8:12).
One does not join the church. Instead, after he is saved, the Lord adds him to that called-out group. When one has believed, repented, confessed the Savior and has been baptized, he is pronounced saved (Acts 2:36, 38; 1 John 4:15; Mark 16:16). A sinner is active in obeying these commandments; when they are done, he is passive as the Lord adds him to the church (Acts 2:47).
The church does not save; it is the saved. Only the Savior saves, and the saved ones make up the church. From the birthday of the church until now, day by day as sinners are being saved they are being added to the church.
J.D. Tant was asked if only members of the church would be saved. His reply was, "Not half of them." In truth, there are two salvations: one from past sins, and one into heaven (1 Peter 1:9; 2 Peter 1:9). When one has been saved from past sins, that salvation is forever and will never be cancelled (Hebrews 10:14). But that saved person, even though a church member, if he misbehaves he falls short of the grace of God (Hebrews 12:15), and will no more go to heaven than the backsliding Israelites could go into the promised land. To them God swore that they would not enter into their rest (Hebrews 3:18). "They were overthrown in the wilderness," and are set forth as a warning to church members lest they fall short of going to heaven (1 Corinthians 10:5-11). "Wherefore, let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall" (1 Corinthians 10:12).
The New Testament church is unique in that it has no proper name. Denominations have proper names. The word "denominate" means to "name" something. But the New Testament church is nameless. Though it is called the house of the Lord, the family of God, the body of Christ and the kingdom of Christ (Galatians 6:10; Ephesians 1:22-23; 3:15; Colossians 3:13; Hebrews 3:5-6; 1 Timothy 3:15), yet it has no proper name.
Individual members of the church do have a proper name. That name is not "disciple," though they are disciples (Acts 9:1). That name is not "brethren," though they are brethren (Acts 9:30). That name is not "saints," though church members are saints (Acts 9:32). Their proper and divinely given name is "Christian" (Acts 11:26), but to call the church the "Christian Church" is to give it a proper name not known in the Bible.
To speak of the New Testament church as the "church of Christ" is right, as it is to speak of it as the "church of God" (Romans 16:16; 1 Corinthians 1:2), but neither is a proper name. To speak of "Church of Christ" congregations and of "Church of Christ preachers" is to denominationalize the church which is unique in that it is not a denomination (a named society).
The last of five features of that divine organization that is like none other is its eternal destiny. No institution except the Lord's church can survive the physical death of its members. But the divinely built church is so constituted that its membership is enjoyed in this life and even more abundantly in eternity. "Godliness is profitable for all things, having promise of the life which now is, and of that which is to come" (1 Timothy 4:8). Faithful church members, adding the Christian graces, will "never fall. In this way the entrance to the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, will be richly provided" (2 Peter 1:5-11). "Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. Amen" (Ephesians 3:21).