What is the church? If you asked a random group of people this question, you’d probably get a large variety of answers. Even Christians have differing ideas about the identity and function of the church. That’s why it’s important to examine its early history to see God’s design. If we don’t understand what the church is, we could easily drift off course and become something Christ never intended His body to be.
The first mention of the church is in Matthew 16:18 when Jesus said, “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” Notice that the church belongs to Jesus, and He takes full responsibility for building, protecting, and empowering it. This is not a man-made project but a divine endeavor that cannot fail because the omnipotent Son of God is in charge.
From our limited perspective it may seem that churches fail when they close their doors, but Christ guarantees that His universal church will continue. Even in the New Testament era, local churches faced threats from false teaching, and some may not have recovered. Yet God always brings new groups of believers together and has raised up congregations in every age and in locations all over the globe. Although persecutors may try to kill it, they cannot stop the growth of the church. In fact, it’s been said that the blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.
The church is an amazing entity that began with the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. And immediately afterward Christ began the building process of “adding to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). The church is built one individual at a time as each one comes to Jesus “as to a living stone which has been rejected by men, but is choice and precious in the sight of God” (1 Pet. 2:4).
Christ is the cornerstone around which the entire church is built.
Christ is the cornerstone around which the entire church is built, and Peter describes believers as “living stones” who “are being built up as a spiritual house” (v. 5). Although we come to Christ individually, we are then joined together with other believers. Jesus never intended for His followers to live in isolation. These living stones are connected with each other to form a temple in which God dwells. None are left out, and all are in place.
The church is also a holy priesthood. In the Old Testament the priests were the only ones allowed access to God in the temple. They were the mediators between God and the people, and were responsible for offering the sacrifices for worship and instructing the people in His Word.
In a similar way, believers under the new covenant “have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19). The Bible says all believers in Christ are members of a royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9). Unlike the Jewish high priest who could only come in once a year, we have constant access to God through prayer and worship. And as priests, we also act as intercessors between the Lord and those who don’t know Him as we explain the gospel and pray for their salvation.
The sacrifices we offer in worship are spiritual ones. Romans 12:1 speaks of offering our bodies as living sacrifices, which means we surrender total control of our entire lives to Christ. Scripture also mentions sacrifices of praise, thanksgiving, doing good, and sharing (Heb. 13:15-16). All these help define who the church is and what we are to do.
The true church is composed of people who belong to God. Listen to how Peter describes us: “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God’s own possession” (1 Pet. 2:9). Being chosen means God took the initiative in our salvation. His choice was not based on anything in us but only on His love. Furthermore, He has made us a holy nation. There are no national or racial distinctions in the body of Christ because we are all one in Him, and our citizenship is in heaven, not in this world. Furthermore, we are called a royal priesthood, signifying that we are royalty. When Christ returns to earth as King of kings, we will rule and reign with Him (Rev. 3:21).
The church’s task is to proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us out of darkness into His marvelous light (1 Pet. 2:9). Not only do we exalt and worship God together, but as those who have received mercy, we have been entrusted with the gospel that can save those trapped in the darkness of sin. People need to hear about God’s love and Christ’s sacrifice on their behalf, and we have the privilege of telling them that forgiveness is possible for all who will repent of sin and trust in Christ as Savior and Lord.
Like anything that is familiar, we can begin to take the church for granted or focus on all the flaws and fail to see how precious it is to Christ. Although there are no perfect churches on earth, there will come a day when we will all be united in heaven, free from sin, and unhindered in our fellowship with one another and our love and adoration of the Savior. Until then, let’s remember who we are, and Whose we are.
Charles F. Stanley
P.S. I’m so grateful for the opportunity to serve you through In Touch Ministries. As 2019 begins, our theme for the year is The Whole Church. In the months ahead, I’ll be sharing thoughts on the community of believers and our place as members, both locally and globally. My prayer is that your appreciation for the body of Christ will grow, as will your love for Jesus, its head.