This authoritative declaration has sounded down through the ages. “I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it. Matthew 16:18b” It has sustained the church through many dark and perilous times
Yet what we have today is a “crisis of ecclesiology” or “what we have here is a failure to communicate.” For it seems that we have averted our gaze from this great formative truth.
This is the first use of the word “church” in the New Testament and it is recorded only twice as being spoken by our Savior. Since it is used so sparingly it would do us well to plunge into its import - for once having done so, we will be swept along by a surging current that finds it headwaters in Genesis 3:15: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring (seed) and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel." NIV This verse is referred to as the protoevangelium or the first proclamation of the Gospel and that by God Himself. Let us keep that in mind as we consider Christ’s own words, “I will build my church;...”
Our first parents having wandered from God were pursued and found by Him. And thus it is with Christ and His Church - we have been pursued and found by Him. "For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost." Luke 19:10
The Sacred Assembly
In contemporary evangelicalism our sacred assembly which we refer to as church is a curious admixture. We see it as a place and time where we as believers are encouraged and equipped - yet we also expect unbelievers to be converted there. What we are left with is a bit of spiritual schizophrenia - incapable of doing either job well.
Christ’s creative words as found in Matthew compose the birth-stool of His church which would mature into “the bride, the wife of the Lamb." Her resplendency would be with the garments which only He could adorn her - “that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.” Ephesians 5:27 As an emphasis - He will prepare and present her to Himself as His royal bride and co-regent.
Of course the word church is an English word. The closest we have to the original manuscript is the Greek word ekklesia. The Ekklesia in Greek culture was the assembly of free citizens, to which belonged judicial and legislative power, and from which aliens and slaves were alike excluded. Thus it is a body of like-minded believers with a legislative responsibility - or one of decree. While Christ spoke Aramaic we do not have the original as spoken by Him. Yet the Aramaic word for church is knista (Swahili - kanisa). Today, the assembly/Parliament in Israel is known as the Knesset. Once again it is a legislative body made up of citizens - not strangers or aliens. English translation might be better - assembly or congregation.
Another analogy for the church is that of “the family of God.” Thus the church consists of the children of their Heavenly Father. There are no illegitimate heirs of His promises - only sons and daughters.
The primary purpose of the ekklesia is not that of an evangelistic service. That function should be the property of the diaspora. That is another Greek word used in the New Testament which means a scattering or a dispersion. There is a gathering together out of society and there is a scattering back into society. The church gathered (ekklesia) is on the defensive while the church scattered (diaspora) is on the offensive. The church should walk on both legs. If you would like to do a bit of investigation you can find the church gathered in Acts 1:8 - but you will not find her scattered until Acts 8:1.
Christ said the Gates of Hades would not prevail against the church that He would build harkening back to Genesis 3:15. He, and she, would be wounded on the heal, but such a wound is recoverable. The wound inflicted by Him, and her, upon the head of the seed of the serpent is fatal from which recovery is not possible. “And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.” Ephesians 1:22-23
The Gates of Hades while meaning the seat of authority is not an offensive weapon. “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 6:12 The battle is not won while crouching down in the trenches - it is won by taking it to the encampment of our enemy.
The church militant is commissioned by the following marching orders: “For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds.” 2 Corinthians 10:4 One commentator writes, “He speaks as if leading an attack on the strong defences of the powers of evil,...”
Paul summarizes in this missional statement: “so that the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known through the church to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly places.” Ephesians 3:10 These rulers and authorities noted here by him represent the Gates of Hades. The wisdom of God is the Imago Dei - revealed as a many-splendored precious stone (jewel) the brilliance of which scatters the minions of darkness.
The church that our Lord is preparing for Himself will be both gathered and scattered. She will occupy until He comes for His vow to her is as follows:
"I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you bind (forbid) on earth shall have been bound in heaven, and whatever you loose (allow) on earth shall have been loosed in heaven." Matthew 16:19 NASB
From the modern Hymnist Stuart Townend:
And all Your children cry with loud acclaim; glory be to God
Sing O church Your sweet refrain; glory be to God
Glory, glory, glory, glory forever and ever.
Glory, glory, glory, glory forever and ever.