What did Jesus mean when He used the word church?
I’m willing to bet dollars to donuts that you will receive replies that range from “a building with a steeple” to “a place where Christians go on Sunday mornings to worship God,” to “where you hear a sermon,” or, sigh, “where my kids get taught great morals to live by (and I get free daycare).” And if you come across someone who isn’t a Christian you may get a nastier answer, but that’s a blog post for another time.
All of these answers are correct in their own way, but not a one of those answers are what Jesus meant when He used the word church.
Not a single one.
Screeeeech. I hear your tires scrunching on gravel. And that’s okay.
It’s also okay to say, “Ken’s going to start rabble-rousing again.”
For yes, I am a rabble-rouser. Hang with me for a bit and you may become one too! The Bible is FILLED with awesome rabble-rousers, including the greatest rabble-rouser of all, Jesus Christ. Jesus is the greatest counter-cultural revolutionary of all time, even rebelling against what it meant to be a revolutionary. That’s how revolutionary He was!
What did you expect to happen when God walked the Earth as a man? Jesus didn’t just kiss babies. He shook the foundations of the very world. He is the Lion of Judah. And lions don’t just purr. They ravage.
That’s great and all Ken, but let’s get back on subject. If Jesus didn’t mean buildings or places when He used the word church, what did He mean?
The first time the word church is found in the Gospels is Matthew 16:18. Jesus has asked the disciples who they say He is. Simon Peter replies that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. And Jesus replies:
Blessed are you, Simon Barjonah, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but by my Father who is in Heaven. I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. (Matthew 16:17-18 NASB)
The word Jesus used that has been translated to us as church, in Greek (the language of Matthew), is ecclesia.
Ecclesia is often defined as “the assembly of free, voting citizens in a city.” But much earlier Greek translations define ecclesia as “to call out, as in the act of voting, a governing body, as in the Athenian tradition.”
Well what the heck does that mean?
It’s pretty exciting.
What Jesus is saying is that those who believe that He is the Son of the living God, and choose to really follow Him, are called to be very special members of a very special type of kingdom, a kingdom in which members have unalienable rights, but also enormous responsibility.
Where do I get that from? Well check this out (because history and etymology are awesome)…
When the Greeks and Romans took dominion over new areas of the world, they would send in a group of specialists, called an ecclesia, and granted them authority and responsibility in calling out, training and equipping the new citizens of their kingdom in their new Greco-Roman ways of life. These ecclesiae helped the local populace quickly become productive citizens and also helped the government quickly assimilate and convert often hostile cultures.
Do you want to know what the leaders of these secular Greco-Roman ecclesia were called?
It’s pretty wild.
They were called apostles.
You see, ecclesia is not a religious word. At its true etymological root, ecclesia is a legislative word.
Jesus didn’t come to create a religion. In fact, His fight was with those in religious authority. Jesus came to restore humanity to the place that God desired, destroy the works of the devil and to call out and establish an assembly of people on Earth to represent the Kingdom of God, an invasion force predicated on serving others through love and spiritual authority, not military might.
This is what Jesus meant by church.
If Jesus had meant a building, he would have said synagogue. Or temple. Notice He didn’t use those words.
The people Jesus spoke to at this time, namely Judeans, would understand what Jesus was saying, as ecclesiae had been set up throughout the region by the Romans. Those that heard these words would understand the MIND-BLOWING and revolutionary implication here.
Jesus, using the word ecclesia, meant that when you believe that Jesus is the Son of God, you become a special member of an assembly of people in two worlds, Heaven and Earth. What you say, what you do, and what you believe is important. You matter. You have authority. In being a member of this assembly, you have been called out of slavery and instead to freedom. You are swearing your life to a higher authority, the Highest Authority, whom you will now represent. You have the right of vote, which means what is important to you matters to God, for you are His specialist. And also, you have responsibility to go to others to train and equip them so that they can become members of this assembly (this is called discipleship).
This is huge. Jesus was talking about an invasion of spiritual love and authority into the dark places, about the restoration of God’s kingdom in a fallen world. About bringing back what our ancestors threw away in the Garden. About representing the living God.
Talk about being a rabble-rouser.
You are called to change the world.
You see, God has a plan. He has a specialist strategically placed where only that specialist can go.
And YOU are that specialist.
What a huge honor. And a weighty responsibility.
As church members, we are not called to live like the rest of the world and then go sit in buildings on Sunday mornings and gather about in gossiping groups, or hear a sermon reminding us how bad the outside world is. That’s called being a hypocrite. We are called, as the church, to infiltrate the world and bring it the Way, the Truth and the Life.
The church building is where we are supposed to come and share our victories and lean upon one another. The church building isn’t supposed to be the only place where we get our spiritual nourishment. That’s crazy-town thinking! When Jesus said church, he wasn’t talking about buildings, altar calls, sinner’s prayers, free coffee and donuts, four worship songs and a sermon. He didn’t mean offering plates, steeples, daycare for your kids and confessionals. I mean, all that stuff is dandy, but its not what church is really supposed to be about. And don’t get me wrong. I LOVE going to church on Sunday. I mean, I LOVE where my family attends church. But if offering plates, a short worship set, a sermon and daycare for your kids are your focus, then you are missing the point. I mean, c’mon, the common refrain is that church has to be more than just Sunday mornings (raise your hand if you have heard that sermon enough times). And it’s danged true. Problem is, our churches have become so domesticated and safe that people think that’s what Christianity and church is all about! Who really wants that watered down mush six other days a week?
Jesus was talking about something so much bigger.
He was talking about being something so much greater. He was talking about representing a kingdom. He was talking about being a kingdom.
C’mon church. We owe it to Him to become what it is that He called us to be, an assembly with power and authority, an uncompromising invasion force armed with the one weapon that eludes our hostile enemy…sacrificial love. Love that looks past our bigger buildings, our programs and our egos.
And I don’t now about you, but I think we have some serious work to do.