You are likely familiar with the quote from Jesus: “on this rock I will build my church...” (Matthew 16:18) and, of course, we all know what a church is. But what if you were in that group, nearly 2000 years ago, that first heard Jesus say it? What would you have thought he meant? What expectations would he have raised? Hearing Jesus' promise through the ears of his first hearers gives us a new and helpful perspective.
As I said, we all know what a church is. We hear the word church and think of the white steepled building we pass on the freeway and the stained glass adorned brick building downtown. Not that we are focused on the building. We are focused on the people that meet there, their creed, and their religious affiliation. That is what the word means to us in our society.
But, just as Jesus certainly was not talking about building a physical structure, neither was he speaking of some sect or denomination as we think of church today. When Jesus said “church” his disciples did not think of a religious group that meets down the road. That's our interpretation. Their interpretation would have been based on their experience of the word. In the Greek and Hebrew languages, it stresses the idea of a group called together for some specific purpose. You can look at Acts 19 where the same word is used of the Ephesian townspeople assembling, both as an angry mob and as a legal forum (vs. 32, 39, 41). The word in these instances is translated “assembly” rather than “church” because this was certainly not a church!
So Jesus' phrase, “I will build my church,” is synonymous with “I will call together an assembly.” And that fits the religious background of the Jews. The prophets had often spoken of the time to come when God would make a great assembly. Frequently the Lord mentioned gathering Israelites back from captivity (e.g., Isaiah 11:11-12). He also spoke of gathering “yet others to him” (Isaiah 56:8) and making a people for himself where there once was “not my people” (Hosea 1:10, cf. Romans 9:25-26 and 1 Peter 2:9-10). So the Jews were expecting a Messiah that would gather people from all nations into the house of the Lord (Isaiah 2:2, Micah 4:2).
That gives me a different way to look at the word church. Yes, I know that it still has the meaning of a religious institution or even a religious meeting place to those of the society around us. But I also know that Jesus and his apostles who carried his message to the world were trying to build a very special entity: a gathering of all who love God and accept their place as his people in submission to him. One gathering for one people who will disregard all worldly barriers to fellowship and harmony.