THE BLOGALOGUE SERIES: "Encountering Jesus: Inside and Outside the Meeting"
Jesus only mentions the word “church” (ecclesia) twice in the Gospels, both in Matthew. The first time ecclesia is mentioned is in Matthew 16:13-18. He took his disciples away on a retreat and gave them a surprise test that had two questions. The first question was easy, it was the warm up question: who do people say that I am? Everyone had an answer and everyone’s answer was correct. Sadly, we Christians are better than most at talking about other people’s mistakes. Everyone likes to get in on that fun.
The second question was the hard one: “Who do you say that I am?” After Jesus asked this it got quiet. I believe all the eyes dropped to the ground. You see there is no risk with the first question. After all, it is other people who are wrong. The second question is the most important question anyone will ever ask you. The answer, right or wrong, puts you out on a ledge, vulnerable and alone.
Peter, who dislikes awkward silence, finally says, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” I imagine all the heads quickly look up and turn to Jesus to see if Peter got it right.
After a pause (for effect), and then a smile,* Jesus replied, “Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, because you cheated on the test.” Okay, he didn’t really say that, but when I was in school, if you got the answer from someone else they called it cheating. Peter didn’t figure it out himself, but was given the answer from the Father. In truth, we all must cheat on this test. We can never figure it out ourselves…we are too broken in our fallen state to understand God without His miraculous and loving intervention and revelation. It’s like trying to lift yourself up out of quicksand by pulling up on your own hair…it doesn’t help. God has to reach down and lift you out of the muck.
At this moment Jesus first mentioned church, but before we look at Jesus’ words about church I think we should pay close attention to the context of those words.
Any good discussion of church begins with asking the right questions. The questions most often asked of churches are: Who is the church trying to reach? What are the demographics of their community? Who is the pastor? How are his/her sermons? What kind of music do they play? What sort of governance do they use? How old is the church? What denomination is the church a part of? How friendly does the church seem upon a visit? What are the youth and/or children’s ministries like? Do they serve good coffee? All are good questions and all are the wrong questions to start with.
Jesus begins His discussion of church with the only right question to ask: Who is Jesus to you? The truth is, if you skip this question “church” will be more about you and less about him. Church begins and ends with the question: Who is Jesus? It is when we depart from that question that we get into all kinds of trouble and start making church about us—what we practice/say/sing/believe and whom we associate with.
I am convinced that the world is far more interested in Jesus than they are in us. Why don’t we make our churches about Him instead of about us? The answer, I believe, is because we ask and answer the wrong questions when it comes to church. We also end up measuring the wrong milestones to determine a good church from a bad one.
It is in this context that Jesus mentions church. In a single sentence Jesus shares a view of church that shatters all our stereotypes of what church is. He says, “Upon this rock I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” Notice he did not say, “Upon this rock you will build your church?”
From this we see a few things:
1. The church belongs to Jesus. He calls it “my church.” His church is not Baptist or Brethren, Pentecostal or Presbyterian. His church is all the above and so much more. His church is not just your church, but also the one across the street. He is as interested in the success of the Lutheran church around the corner as your church. Perhaps you should be as well for in fact we are all His church. When His church succeeds, we succeed. And succeed it will.
2. The church is Jesus’ work, not ours. He says, “I will build my church.” So often the church is our project that we do for him, but actually that is backwards. He is the one that does the building of the church. Though I am a church planter, I realized long ago that I am not ever told to plant a church. I am to make disciples; he is the one who builds the church. I am to plant the gospel, not a church. He builds the church.
3. The church is a movement pressing into mission against opposition. He said, “…the gates of hades will not overpower the church.” There is a war all around us in the spiritual world and we are unwise to ignore it. There is no power on earth that is capable of stopping the church from accomplishing the mission given to her by Jesus…except her own lack of faith. It is not Satan or his minions that threaten our success. It is not any cult, philosophy or “ism” that is holding us back. No government or ideology of hate can stop the church. The only thing that can hold us back is our misplaced and weak faith.
Most of us are familiar with gates and likely have one at home. What are gates good for? Gates keep dogs in the yard and prowlers out. Gates are not offensive weapons; they are defensive. Police officers do not carry loaded gates. Terrorists do not hold hostages at gate-point. Dogs do not wear signs that say “Beware of gates!” Gates are not a threat. In Jesus understanding, we are the threat, and the enemy is running scared! Jesus sees the church on offense and Satan back on his heals on defense with his tail between his legs.
If we understood church the way Jesus described it, we would not be waiting for the world to come to us; we would be taking Jesus to the very gates of hell and setting captives free.
The only other time Jesus mentions church is a few chapters later in Matthew 18 where he specifically mentions that He is with us in our midst (v. 20). Most are told that church is where people need to go to find Jesus. Is Jesus at church? Yes. But He is not only at church. Wherever His people go, Jesus and His kingdom will go. Why on earth would we restrict that awesome life changing power to the space between stained glass windows?
If we get back to the original question we will likely find the courage and hope necessary to be what He expects of us. Who is Jesus to you? If indeed He has all authority of heaven and earth, why are we not going forward in power? If He is the one who opens the door and that no one can shut, why are we not going through those doors? If He is the one who preaches the good news to the oppressed and heals those who are broken why are we not bringing Him to those who need Him the most?
Here’s a closing suggestion: Take a sheet of paper and draw a line down the middle creating two columns. On the left write: “Who is Jesus?” and write down all the things you know about him (descriptions, names, powers). On the right side write: “Difference this should make in the way we do church.” Write down all the ways we should be different because of who Jesus is. I seriously doubt you can leave church the way it is in light of who Jesus truly is. I suspect, you can’t stay away from a hurting world and remain in the gathering of the faithful and really know and love Jesus for who He is.
*Yes, this is my imagination as I read the passage and is not in the text, no need to tell me so.
** The first picture is actually in the location where Jesus said these words to his disciples. The second is a picture of Auguste Rodin's masterpiece called The Gates of Hell.
NOTE: This blog is part of a Blogalogue Series of posts from Neil Cole, Richard Jacobson, Dan Herford, Jon Zens and Keith Giles.
The Topic: Encountering Jesus: Inside and Outside the Church
Keith Giles: Week of Feb. 16
Dan Herford: Week of Feb 23
Neil Cole: Week of March 2
Jon Zens: Week of March 9
Video Skype Roundtable discussion: Saturday March 14 or Sunday March 15