Weekly Bible Study
Tuesday 18th August 2020
Topic: The Nature of the Church
Text: Matt. 16:18, Heb. 12:23
The church is the community of all true believers for all time. The term “the church” is used to apply to all those whom Christ died to redeem, all those who are saved by the death of Christ. But that must include all true believers for all time, both believers in the New Testament age and believers in the Old Testament age as well. Jesus Christ himself builds the church by calling his people to himself. He promised, “I will build my church”.
The growth of the church came not by human effort alone, but that “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved” (Acts 2:47). This process whereby Christ builds the church is just a continuation of the pattern established by God in the Old Testament whereby he called people to himself to be a worshiping assembly before him.
THE CHURCH IN THE OLD TESTAMENT.
In the Old Testament, there are several indications that God thought of his people as a “church,” a people assembled for the purpose of worshiping God. In Deut. 4:10, the Hebrew word used for “gather” is “qāhal” while the Greek word (a verb) “ekklēsiazō”, meaning “to summon an assembly,” is cognate to the New Testament noun “ekklēsia”, “church.” It is not surprising then, that the New Testament authors can speak of the Old Testament people of Israel as a “church” (ekklēsia). Stephen speaks of the people of Israel in the wilderness as “the church (ekklēsia) in the wilderness” (Acts 7:38, (ekklēsia) is also used in Heb. 2:12, Ps. 22:22).
The present-day Christians who constitute the church on earth are surrounded by a great “cloud of witnesses” (Heb. 12:1) that reaches back into the earliest era of the Old Testament and that includes Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, David, Samuel, and the prophets. Moreover, later in Heb. 12:23, the author of Hebrews says that when New Testament Christians worship we come into the presence of “the assembly (church/ekklēsia) of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven.”
It is appropriate to think of the church as constituting all the people of God for all time, both Old Testament believers and New Testament believers. With his extensive awareness of the Old Testament background to the New Testament church, Paul can still say that “the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body” (Eph. 3:6).
The entire passage speaks strongly of the unity of Jewish and Gentile believers in one body in Christ and gives no indication of any distinctive plan for Jewish people ever to be saved apart from inclusion in the one body of Christ, the church. The church incorporates into itself all the true people of God, and almost all of the titles used of God’s people in the Old Testament are in one place or another applied to the church in the New Testament.
The followings are the nature of the Church.
1. The Church Is Invisible, Yet Visible.
In its true spiritual reality as the fellowship of all genuine believers, the church is invisible. This is because we cannot see the spiritual condition of people’s hearts. We can see those who outwardly attend the church, and we can see outward evidences of inward spiritual change, but we cannot actually see into people’s hearts and view their spiritual state for only God can do that. 2 Tim. 2:19 says, only God knows those who are true believers with certainty and without error. The invisible church is the church as God sees it, the visible church is the church as Christians on earth see it. In this sense the visible church includes all who profess faith in Christ and give evidence of that faith in their lives. The visible church throughout the world will always include some unbelievers, and individual congregations will usually include some unbelievers, because we cannot see hearts as God sees them.
2. The visible church may comprise of those who are not saved.
When Paul writes his epistles, he writes to the visible church in each community: “To the church of God which is at Corinth.” (1 Cor. 1:2); “To the church of the Thessalonians” (1 Thess. 1:1); “To Philemon . . . and Apphia . . . and Archippus . . . and the church in your house” (Philem. 1:2). Paul certainly realized that there were unbelievers in some of those churches. In this sense, we could say today that the visible church is the group of people who come together each week to worship as a church and profess faith in Christ. There were “Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have swerved from the truth” and who “are upsetting the faith of some” (2 Tim. 2:17–18).
Realizing this distinction between the church invisible and the church visible, Augustine said of the visible church, “many sheep are without and many wolves are within.” When we recognize that there are unbelievers in the visible church, there is a danger that we may become overly suspicious. We may begin to doubt the salvation of many true believers and thereby bring great confusion into the church.
3. The Church Is Local and Universal.
In the New Testament, the word “church” may be applied to a group of believers at any level, ranging from a very small group meeting in a private home all the way to the group of all true believers in the universal church. A “house church” is called a “church” in Romans 16:5, Paul says “greet also the church in their house” and in 1 Corinthians 16:19, he says “Aquila and Prisca, together with the church in their house, send you hearty greetings in the Lord”. The church in an entire city is also called “a church.” (1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Cor. 1:1, 1 Thess. 1:1) The church in a region is referred to as a “church” in Acts 9:31.
Finally, the church throughout the entire world can be referred to as “the church.” Paul says, “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph. 5:25) and also says, “God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers . . .” (1 Cor. 12:28). In this latter verse, the mention of “apostles,” who were not given to any individual church, guarantees that the reference is to the church universal.
We may conclude therefore that the group of God’s people considered at any level from local to universal may rightly be called “a church.” We should not make the mistake of saying that only a church meeting in houses expresses the true nature of the church, or only a church considered at a city-wide level can rightly be called a church, or only the church universal can rightly be called by the name “church.” Rather, the community of God’s people considered at any level can be rightly called a church.