The Prevailing Church (pt. 1)
Pro Ecclesia: For the Church
The word church is fundamentally a Christian word and belongs exclusively to Christianity. Although other religions have terms such as synagogue and mosque, only Christians legitimately call their house of worship “church.”
There are churches that are named after places and people, but they can never claim origin or ownership, because Christ owns the church. Actually, Jesus told Simon Peter: “You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matt. 16:18; see also 18:17). The Greek word for church is ekklesia, which means being called out of this world of humanity to form a body of believers that belongs exclusively to Jesus. This is not to say that there is no continuity with God’s people of the Old Testament era. Of course there is. It is better to say that the church consists of a new company of believers guided by the message of both prophets and apostles. In other words, these believers find their origin in both the Old and New Testaments. There is a golden thread that is woven throughout the Scriptures from Genesis to Revelation with this divine message: “I will be your God and you shall be my people.”
The church is universal and exists throughout the world in spite of oppression and persecution. All believers everywhere recite the words of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe…in the holy catholic (universal) church, the communion of saints.” And that church will remain until this world comes to an end. It received the promise Jesus gave the church as a last word before His ascension: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Indeed, this is a reassuring promise to every believer. Jesus accompanies us every step on life’s way and during every moment of each day.
In His parting words Jesus said much more to His disciples and to all His followers. He gave the church the words that are known as the Great Commission (vv. 19-20). In effect He said, after you have gone out into the world with the gospel of salvation, you are to make disciples of all nations. He did not intend to say that Jewish apostles had to go out only to fellow Jews living in dispersion but rather that the gospel should be preached to all people worldwide.
Paul, who was called the Apostle to the Gentiles, established churches that admitted both Jews and Gentiles. Indeed, during his first missionary journey he established the churches of Lystra and Derbe in the central part of Turkey, which was completely Gentile. And while Paul was a prisoner in Rome for two years in his own rented house that became a mission headquarters, he sent missionaries throughout the Roman Empire, that is, to the end of the world (Acts 28:28-31; compare 1:8). Similarly, the apostle Thomas went as far as the southwestern coast of India to the state of Kerala. Even today the Christians there bear the name of Saint Thomas in their language, Mar Thoma. Their tradition goes back to the middle of the first century and provides the information that Thomas established seven churches there.
The apostles understood the command of Jesus literally: “make disciples of all nations.” This command is an imperative with continued force. The word disciple is not to be realized by merely making converts, for this term actually means being a learner, that is, one who receives adequate training. It is telling indeed that in the book of Acts, Luke introduces various people with the term disciple. For instance, in Acts 9:10 he identified Ananias of Damascus as a disciple whom Jesus sent as an emissary to Paul. In other words, in the four Gospels the immediate followers of Jesus are known as the twelve disciples. But after Pentecost, these twelve are designated as apostles and new converts become known as disciples.
When Jesus said, “Go therefore, and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19), He told us to do this by following two steps: first, by baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit; and second, by teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded. After an initial period of instruction, prospective members are baptized in the name of the triune God and become an essential part of the church that gives them both privileges and duties.
We are in a vital relationship with the triune God, which means that the Father calls us His sons and daughters, that the Son regards us as His brothers and sisters, and that the Holy Spirit dwells within us. There is still more, for Paul mentions that we are heirs and fellow heirs with Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:17). What a source of comfort! This means that any time of day or night we may call on the Father’s name and ask Him to help us with insight, wisdom, and understanding because we are His offspring. We can call on Jesus anytime and anywhere because He is our brother. And we are able to call on the Holy Spirit to fill us with courage and to protect us from evil and harm.
Dr. Simon J. Kistemaker is professor emeritus of New Testament at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and is author of The Parables: Understanding the Stories Jesus Told. This article is part one of a two-part series on the mission of the church.
Each month, the editors of Tabletalk select an influential pastor or scholar to address issues pertinent to the life and ministry of the church in Pro Ecclesia.