The first article in this series was written as an evangelistic message to non-believers. This article, and those following, are addressed to new committed Christians.
The word CHURCH brings to mind all kinds of impressions, differing things according to our upbringing, where we live, and our habits as believers. But not everything that is taken for granted by Christians is necessarily true, and therefore we can only hammer out the truth by looking in the New Testament and pinning our faith on what is written there. Students who do research are always looking for what they call “source material.” For Christians, the Bible is the only reliable “source material” this world contains.
In today’s world there are many different “churches”, with many different and varied customs, and often sharp differences between them, which doesn’t help our enquiry, and can be a source of bewilderment to any new Christian, who asks “Where am I supposed to go?” A friend of ours, on being asked by a casual acquaintance, “To which church do you belong?”, answered, “I didn’t know there was more than one!” That’s about the crux of the matter, and that’s why we need to put on one side all the multifarious denominational expressions of Christianity, and be prepared to accept, and act upon, what the Bible declares is the Church of Jesus Christ.
There is no better place to begin our investigation than a conversation piece found in Matthew’s Gospel, chapter 16, verses 15 – 18. Let’s have a look at it. Jesus asked His disciples, “Whom do you say that I am? Simon Peter answered, You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus answered, You are blessed, Simon son of Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. 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 prevail against it.”
Three important facts emerge from this passage.
- Jesus spoke of “my church.”, and therefore there is only one church, and it belongs to Him.
- Jesus said, “I will build”. He alone is therefore the builder. “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labour in vain.” (Ps.127:1)
- Jesus said He would build His church “upon this rock.” Sensible builders choose solid foundations.
What did the Lord mean when He said “upon this rock”? And why did He say “You are Peter.” What is the connection? In the Greek original, the name Peter means a stone. And a stone is a small piece off a rock. When the Lord referred to the rock, He was referring to Himself. The Apostle Paul said, “Man may not lay any other foundation than that which is already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1 Cor.3:11) In His play upon words, Jesus called Peter a stone because he was to become a part of the building. Later on, when Peter wrote one of his letters, he referred to this. “You also, as Living Stones, are being built up into a Spiritual House.” (1 Pet.2:4-5) Peter’s former name was Simon the son of Jonah. But from that day onwards, Peter would always remember the important message Jesus gave him, whenever anyone referred to him as Peter.
When a boy grows up, to adopt and develop his father’s skills, they say “He is a chip off the old block.” And so we continue to use the concept in today’s figurative language. Yes, all those who are true believers are “living stones.” And they become living stones by confessing their belief, just as Peter did. “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.” Jesus, the Master Builder, then takes His “stones” and shapes and fashions them as He builds His Church. We may be rough hewn stones from the quarry of the commonplace in this world, but when the Master’s hands take these stones, they are gradually transformed into something that gives Him delight.
Remember that these stones are “living stones” and they are being built upon a living foundation, even the Lord Himself. Therefore whenever we look at church buildings, we must not confuse them with the living church, which is an invisible structure, not appreciated as such by the world. Believers may “go to church” in one of these buildings, but they themselves constitute the church, not the building. It is therefore, in the strict sense of the word, to say, “Let us go to church.” No building, however grand, is the Church of Jesus Christ. All buildings are the result of human effort. But we have already seen that Jesus is the sole Master Builder. He alone is building His Church. It is aspiritual house, not a man-made building. Paul said in his letter to the Ephesian Christians, “You are being built upon the foundation of the apostles and the prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the corner-stone, in Whomthe whole structure is joined together, and is growing into a Holy Temple in the Lord. You are being built into it as a dwelling place of God in the spirit.” (Eph.2:20-22)
It can be a wonderful experience to join together with many other believers in a church building, to sing God’s praise, to listen to a sermon, and to share together afterwards over a cup of coffee, but we must also remember that the interplay between believers is not solely a matter of meeting in buildings constructed for that purpose. Jesus said,“Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst.” (Matt.18:20) Yes, wherever believers meet, whether it be in a home, in a cafe, in the countryside, or in a building, the Master is present, and imparts His Holy Spirit as they have fellowship together. Some Christians prefer to have their meetings in a home, rather than in a church building. Others prefer to “go to church.” But whichever way it is, one must remember that believers are the living stones, and not the buildings.
Paul warned the Hebrew Christians, “not to neglect the gathering of yourselves together.” (Heb.10:25) It is important for God’s living stones to share with each other in all things spiritual and natural. The Lord uses this sharing to chisel and polish His stones. Therefore we should try to encourage this “gathering together” in such a way that it is possible to share spiritual truths, learn from each other, and build each other up in the faith. This is good and wholesome, and should come naturally to all believers. However, some church services do not allow this to happen. How easy it is to wander into a church, sit in a pew, follow through the service, listen to the sermon, and leave having said nothing to anyone save a word of thanks to the Pastor at the door. Maybe you feel judgmental about such churches. But it is an ignoble thing to become a “church basher”, having seen the point of true fellowship. It is nevertheless most important to meet with other Christians and share with them. If the local church doesn’t provide this opportunity, then it may be necessary to consider some alternative. Each one has to make a sensible decision before the Lord concerning this.
God doesn’t see Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists, Pentecostals, Catholics, or other such labels. He only sees human beings, and those who are truly His are members of His Church. Let us be prepared to stand upon this principle when occasions arise. Some years ago a nurse was filling out a form for me in a hospital, and got to the question, “Which religion?” I answered truthfully, “Christian.” She looked impatient, tapping her pen on the counter, expecting me to say Baptist, or Catholic. When I insisted, she shrugged her shoulders and acquiesced. I explained that I was not trying to be awkward, but I didn’t “belong” to any denomination. A man standing nearby was listening to this conversation. Afterwards he approached me and said, “Thank you for that. I admire your courage to stand by what you believe.” We sat and had a few minutes fellowship together. Two “living stones” had touched, and the Lord was “in our midst.”
Finally, let us hear what Paul had to say. “Do all you can to guard the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace.There is ONE body, ONE Spirit, even as you are called in ONE hope of your calling, ONE Lord, ONE faith, ONE baptism, ONE God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in you all.” (Eph.4:3-6) Wherever you decide to have fellowship, in whatever setting you feel most at home, just remember the basic concept of unity that God has made in Christ our Lord. It is invidious to point fingers at others who do not see things the way you do. If they have been “washed in the blood of the Lamb,” they belong to Jesus as surely as you do, and we are enjoined not to judge each other, lest we find ourselves judged severely by the Lord.
If you have confessed Christ, as Peter did, and know that He came to die for your sins, and rise again to be the guarantee of your new life, then you are indeed a Living Stone in His Church, the Holy Temple of the Lord, and wherever you have fellowship with other believers, whether few or many, you are sharing Christ’s life, and He is with you in the midst. This is a precious privilege, and as we share together, we constitute His Church, and this should always be a matter of rejoicing. So let us “guard the unity of spirit in the bond of peace.” We are part of God’s invisible building, to the praise of the glory of His grace.