2. Jesus and the Church

Jesus is recorded as mentioning the church only twice and Matthew is the only gospel writer to report what he said.

Jesus’ first mention of the church appears in Matthew 16 verse 18. In response to Peter’s affirmation that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus said,

“You are Peter and on this rock I will build my church.”

Jesus was making a play on Peter’s nickname which meant “a small stone” or a pebble. He was using the image of a building but the “church” is a political word, not an architectural one. Jesus spoke in Aramaic but Matthew reports what he said in Greek, using the word ekklesia. This word was used both for the Assembly of Citizens which was at the heart of Greek democracy and, by Greek speaking Jews, for the Congregation of Israel when the nation or its tribal leaders met to consult with each other and God.

A new government

We need to set this statement against the background of Jesus’ central message, “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Jesus is promising to set up a new government. He is and will remain king but he promises to set up a system of government at the centre of which will be an assembly of the citizens of the New Jerusalem – a Council of the rulers of the true Israel. Peter, he says, will have a foundational role in establishing this new assembly and will wield authority in Jesus’ name, represented by the “keys of the kingdom” and the promise that what Peter binds or looses on earth will be bound or loosed in heaven.

Binding and loosing

The language of binding and loosing refers to decisions to forbid something or to allow it. It represents acting with God’s authority in a two way situation where Peter and the new assembly loose God’s will and bind the work of Satan on earth while God in turn honours Peter and the new assembly and backs up decisions made by those who are acting as his representatives.

Listening to the church

Jesus uses the word ekklesia again in Matthew chapter 18. He is giving instructions about what to do when a fellow Christian sins. The procedure he outlines ends with the instruction,

“...and, if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be as a pagan or a tax collector.”

The church here seems to be a final authority for resolving a dispute between Christians. It also has a part to play in protecting its members from going astray. It must be a relatively local assembly in order to be able to deal with matters at this level. Again, Jesus uses the language of binding and loosing, making it clear that the same authority he attributed to Peter applies also to every ekklesia. The section ends with the promise, “For where two or three gather in my name I am there with them.” The ekklesia is made up of people who gather in Jesus’ name, at his command, seeking his presence and with the attention of mediating his authority on earth.

Implications

What are the implications for us? Here are a few:

•    The church is intended to be a political organisation.
•    Jesus assumes that every Christian will associated with a church.
•    The church is essentially local.
•    The church is about relationship and listening to one another.
•    The church is responsible for going after its members if they go astray and trying to bring them back.

Photograph of pebbles © copyright Magnus Franklin, accessed from www.flickr.com and used under a Creative Commons license.