What is the Church?

by Mike Ratliff

κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν καὶ πύλαι ᾅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς. (Matthew 16:18 NA27)

And I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (a personal translation of Matthew 16:18 from the NA27 Greek text)

What is the Church? There is much debate and with that, a great deal of unbiblical beliefs about what our Lord was talking about in Matthew 16:18 in the context of μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν. This literally says in the Greek, “of me the ekklēsian.” The noun ἐκκλησίαν is the Accusative, Singular of ἐκκλησία or ekklēsia, “a called out assembly.” The Accusative case corresponds to the English Objective case. Here we see that ἐκκλησίαν is in the Accusative case because it has accusative case ending of “ν.” Nouns in the Accusative case are the direct object of the action, which in this sentence is our Lord’s stating, “καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω” “and upon this rock, I will build…” Therefore, we learn several things that tell us what the Church is and what it is not. It is built upon what our Lord called ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ and that He is the one doing the building. We learn that the Church is not built on or according to anything else nor is built by the efforts of men or according the wisdom of this world. 

The Church our Lord builds will be immune to death because by its very nature those who are within it have been given eternal life so they having nothing to fear of physical death or the coming Judgment of those outside of the Church. That is what that part about the gates of Hades will not overcome it is talking about.

While forms of ἐκκλησία are found in the Septuagint about 100 times in reference to the gathering of Israel for some definite purpose, the Greek word used most often in that context is συναγωγή or sunagōgē, “synagogue.” This is found over 225 times to translate various Hebrew words. What New Testament scholars have found is that Jesus’ followers did not describe their meetings using συναγωγή, since this would have been the natural word for Jews to use. When they did use it, it was always in reference to the local Jewish community or assembly, but never the gathering of the Christian believers.

The noun ἐκκλησία is, therefore, unique from συναγωγή. It appears in the New Testament some 116 times. In Matthew 16:18 our Lord’s use of ἐκκλησία in that context truly transformed that word, using it to refer to His assembly, making it distinct from Judaism.

The English word “church” comes from the Greek noun κυριακός or kuriakos, which is derived from κύριος or kurios, “Lord.” The word κυριακός literally means “belonging to the Lord.” It is translated as “Lord’s” in 1 Corinthians 11:20 and Revelation 1:10 for instance. Therefore, the church can be defined as “the called-out assembly of New Testament believers that belongs to the Lord.

Our Lord’s ἐκκλησία is not just a group of denominations or local church buildings or organizations that have charters, creeds, et cetera. No our Lord’s ἐκκλησία is singular. There is just one and it is a living group of people called out by God Himself who belong to Christ our Lord. In Ephesians 5 we learn that Christ loved the Church, gave Himself for it, sanctified it, and is the head of it.

Now back to our Lord’s statement of building this Church Himself upon something called ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ; what is this? Here is the entire verse in Greek along with my translation.

κἀγὼ δέ σοι λέγω ὅτι σὺ εἶ Πέτρος, καὶ ἐπὶ ταύτῃ τῇ πέτρᾳ οἰκοδομήσω μου τὴν ἐκκλησίαν καὶ πύλαι ᾅδου οὐ κατισχύσουσιν αὐτῆς. (Matthew 16:18 NA27)

And I say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock, I will build my Church and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. (a personal translation of Matthew 16:18 from the NA27 Greek text)

Our Lord gave Simon a new name, Πέτρος or Petros. According to my Liddell & Scott Greek-English Lexicon, this word simply means “a stone.” However, after saying He is going to build His Church, the foundation upon which He is going to construct it is πέτρᾳ, which my lexicon defines as a fixed rock like a massive boulder or rock shelf. It came to be used as a term for a “foundation stone.” What is the metaphor our Lord is using here? The New Testament clearly teaches us that our Lord Jesus Christ is both the foundation (Acts 4:11, 12; 1 Corinthians 3:11) and the head (Ephesians 5:23) of the church. Therefore, it is a mistake to think that He is referring here to Peter in either of those roles. Yes, the Apostles, all of them, played a foundational role in the building of the Church (Ephesians 2:20), but the role of primacy is reserved for Christ alone, not to Peter. Also, Peter himself explains the imagery in 1 Peter 2:5 in which the Church is built of “living stones” who, like Peter, confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God. Christ Himself is the “chief cornerstone” (1 Peter 2:6. 7).

Are you truly in Christ? Rejoice because you are also part of the ἐκκλησία and that means you and I may indeed witness the apostasy of much of what we call the “visible church,” but my brethren, our Lord has not taken away this promise to build His ἐκκλησία, therefore, let us remain prayerful and obedient as we watch and await His return for us.

Soli Deo Gloria!

6 thoughts on “What is the Church?

  1. Mike, still keeping you much in payer…
    I liked this! Knowing I am part of “the people called out by God Himself who belong to Christ our Lord” I was RC once, It will help much too in explaining Matthew 16:18 to Catholic friends

  2. Celine, thank you for your prayers my sister. Both this post and the one previous make me targets of RC folks. I find it interesting that not one of their attacks are biblically based, not one! Nope, they all just compare their traditions with their misconceptions of what they see in our teachings while they totally misunderstand grace. That is the key for if grace is missing then what are we doing?

  3. Not just the R.C. mother, but all her daughters that came from her. That is every one of those made by men denominations, that now number 38,000 in the world.
    The key being made by men, and not by Jesus.
    Thanks, Mike for the wonderful studies you do, now, if you please, how about the term “mystery of iniquity,” from 2 Thes. 2

  4. This was so excellent!! I also was of RC background before the Lord ‘rescued me’ out of it…This is the best teaching and explanation I have heard yet that wonderfully explains the true meaning of those scriptures.. Thank You!

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