It seems that religion in its purest sense has always been a part of man’s life. While the Bible, made up of some of most ancient writings in the world, gives no proof of an organized religious life in the ancient world, it does seem to indicate that the earliest form of “organized worship” of God occurred in the family, in which all members participated. The father acted as priest and leader in the simple worship of God as seen in the life of Adam and Noah, for example.

This same kind of simple religious life continued during the time of the Patriarchs. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the sons of Jacob all acted as the heads of their families, both in the practical sense and in the religious sense.

It wasn’t until the organization of Israel under Moses that religion became “institutionalized.” Josephus is credited with coming up with the term that best describes the kind of religion Moses instituted: theocracy. From the time of Moses to the divided kingdom, then to the Southern Kingdom, then to Israel’s post-exilic history from Ezra to Malachi, Israel’s religion was a theocracy; it included all things political, social, and sacred. God was the Supreme Ruler of Israel, while the priests, kings, and prophets were seen as the executors of God’s will. The bond that joined all Israel together was the Law (the Word of God), the Temple, and worship in the Temple.

One time the word “church” is used of Israel (Acts 7:38), but it is not used in a technical sense of an organized congregation. There is no Scriptural term used of God’s people in the Old Testament in a collective sense. There is no “church” in the Old Testament. Israel is not the Church and the Church is not Israel.

1. What the Church is not

A. The church is not an new and improved form of Judaism

There certainly is a connection between true believers of all ages, but Christianity is a completely new system of belief; it is new wine poured into new wineskins.  Jesus hinted at this in the Gospels:

I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. (John 10:16)

Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” (Matthew 9:17)

Jesus, Himself a Jew and faithful to Judaism, spoke in the future tense when He spoke of building His church:

And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of death will not overcome it. (Matthew 16:18)

The apostle Paul taught that not only is the Church something new in the plan of God, it is a “mystery” that had been kept hidden until it was revealed to God’s “holy apostles and prophets,” Ephesians 3.

B. The Church is not the “Kingdom”

The term “kingdom of heaven” is used 33 times in the Gospel of Matthew, but nowhere else in the Bible. The more common term seen in the New Testament is “kingdom of God.” However, neither term refers to the Church.

Generally speaking, the “kingdom of heaven” and “the kingdom of God” are used interchangeably, having reference to either the Millennial Kingdom and the reign of Jesus Christ as Messiah in the future or the mixed condition of Christianity today (see the parables of Matthew 13)

A good way to define the “kingdom of heaven” and the “kingdom of God” is that while they are much, much larger than the Church; that they do not refer specifically to the Church,  the Church is the visible part of the kingdoms of heaven and God today.

C. The Church is not a denomination

You may search high and low, but you will not find Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, or Lutherans mentioned in the Bible. Denominations are an invention of man, not of God. That is not to say that denominations are a bad idea, but there is no such thing as “the true church” in the sense that one denomination gets it right and all the rest are wrong.  No single denomination and no single local church has a corner on God’s truth.

2. What the Church is

The best way to define the Church might be considering the words used to describe it in the Bible.

A. Words describing the Church

The New Testament Greek word for “church” is ecclesia, which means “an assembly or called-out ones.” Within the New Testament, the word ecclesia is used to describe three groups of “called-out ones”:

  • All Christians in a particular location, Acts 11:22; 13:1

  • A local congregation, 1 Corinthians 14:19, 35; Romans 16:5

  • All Christians, all over the world, Ephesians 5:32

Our English word “church” is derived from the Greek word kuriake, meaning “that which belongs to the Lord.” So then, taking ecclesia and kuriake as our starting point, the Church is a group of people called out from the world by God that professes faith in and love for Jesus Christ and aligns itself with His teachings.  This called-out group does not belong to a pastor or a board o r an earthly organization; it is the precious possession of God.

B. Words describing Christians

Brothers (and sisters). The Church is a “spiritual brotherhood” or a fellowship of like-minded people in which all divisions that separate people from one another have been eliminated.

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28)

Believers. Christians are often called “believers” because their defining doctrine is in an unwavering belief in Jesus Christ.

Saints. Christians are frequently referred to as “saints,” which means literally “consecrated” or “holy ones.” This simply means Christians are separated from the rest of the world because they are dedicated to God.

The elect. Christians are also known as “the elect” or “the chosen,” because God has chosen them for an important ministry and a glorious future.

Disciples. Literally, Christians are “learners” because they are under spiritual instruction and training by Christ-inspired instructors.

Christians. So named because our religion is centered around the Person of Christ.

Those of the Way. In the very early days of the Church, Christians were often known as “people of the Way,” Acts 9:2, because they lived according to a special, different way of life.

3. Illustrations of the Church

A. The Body of Christ

This might be the most common description of the Church; a favorite of Paul’s. Our Lord left the Earth 2,000 years ago, but His is still here; His presence is manifested through the Church—His Body.

When Jesus lived His natural life on the Earth, He lived as an individual; He had an individual body. Now He lives on the Earth through the Church, made up of individuals who have the risen Christ dwelling within them in the Person of the Holy Spirit.

I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. (John 15:5)

Christ is the vine, but the vine is incomplete without its branches; the branches are dead if they are not attached to the vine. If Christ is to be known to people in the world around us, it must be through those who bear His Name and share His life.

This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus. (1 John 4:17)

As Jesus was anointed at the Jordan, so the Church was anointed on the Day of Pentecost. Jesus, after His anointing, went about preaching, healing, saving, and so on; so the Church carries on that task today.

As the Body of Christ, the Church is not merely an organization (although it is that); it is an organism. The Church of Jesus Christ is a living, growing thing; it is the sum total of all its related parts, in which the relationship of each part involves a relationship to the whole. The human body is one unit, made up of millions of living cells. The Body of Christ is One, yet made up millions of born again souls.

B. The Temple of God

…you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house (or Temple) to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. (1 Peter 2:5)

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? (1 Corinthians 6:19)

A temple is traditionally a place where God localizes Himself. As God dwelt in the Tabernacle and the Temple, so He now lives, by the Holy Spirit, in the Church (Ephesians 2:21—22; 1 Corinthians 3:16—17). In this “spiritual temple,” Christians work as priests, they offer up spiritual sacrifices—including prayer, praise and good works.

C. The Bride of Christ

This illustrative term is used of both Old and New Testaments saints. This pictures Christ’s close, intimate communion and fellowship with His people.

(c)  2011 WitzEnd

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