The Greek word for “church” is ekklēsia, which means “assembly.” The first two occurrences of this word in the nt are spoken by Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel. In the first instance (Matt 16:18), Jesus says “I will build my church [i.e., assembly].” This reference can be theologically connected to the ot notion of the “assembly of Israel” used in reference to the Mount Sinai event where God visits His people (Exod 19–20). From that day on, God continued to meet with His people as they assembled around the tabernacle and later the temple—linking Israel’s experience of God’s presence with their being in assembly.
In Matthew 16:18, Jesus proclaims that He will create a similar assembly—what we know of as the church. This is why Jesus’ next reference to the church (Matt 18:15–20) contains the promise “where two or three are gathered in my name there I am present with them in their midst” (Matt 18:20). The fundamental idea of church is that it is the assembly of people gathered in Jesus’ name—and Jesus is present among them. Similarly, Paul speaks of Jesus being present when the church assembles for church discipline (1 Cor 5:4), communion (1 Cor 11:27–32), and worship (1 Cor 14:23–25). God’s unique presence in and through the church, being the group of believers, makes the church a way that we can experience God’s power and glory (Eph 3:21; compare Heb 10:19–25; 12:22–24).
The church is also identified as the body of Christ (e.g., 1 Cor 12; Col 1:24; Eph 1:22–23), the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor 3:16–17; 2 Cor 6:16; Eph 2:20–21), the bride of Christ (Eph 5:22–33), and the people of God (e.g., 1 Pet 2:9–10). We also experience fellowship with one another in the church (Acts 2:42–47; Eph 2:10–14; 1 John 1:7), and thus we have the opportunity to grow and mature in the faith (Eph 4:7–16). This makes the church the means through which God accomplishes great things in this world (Eph 3:20–21)—how God makes visible the invisible presence of Christ (Eph 1:22–23).
There are two uses of the word “church”: the Universal Church comprising all believers everywhere, and specific local churches like the church in Corinth, which assembled together regularly in a specific location. These two groups are connected to one another so that Paul, in the same passage, can say “we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body” (1 Cor 12:13) speaking of the Universal Church, and say, “Now you are the body of Christ” (1 Cor 12:27) speaking of the local church at Corinth. Likewise when Paul speaks of the Universal Church in Eph 2:20, saying, “In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord,” he then immediately turns and speaks of the local church in Eph 2:21 saying, “In him, you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” The best way to understand the relationship between the Universal Church and the local church is to realize that each local church is considered a full manifestation of the Universal Church. In this regard, the identities of the two mold into one.
Additionally, because the church is God’s work, it often comes under attack by the spiritual forces of darkness. Although Jesus proclaimed that the church would ultimately be victorious (Matt 16:18), there are inevitable setbacks along the way. As a result, God’s presence in the church is often veiled, and the church’s true beauty is obscured by the sinfulness of people. This was one of the points of the Shepherd of Hermas, a second-century Christian writing in which the church is represented by a woman. The narrator meets this woman at various points throughout the story. When he first meets her, he sees her as an aged, unattractive old woman. But as the book continues, the narrator becomes more aware of his own sinfulness and grows in his understanding of the grace God gives to the woman. As he does so, the woman becomes younger and more beautiful each time he sees her. For this reason, we sometimes have to look deeply—both at ourselves and at others—before we can find the beauty of God’s presence in the midst of the church.
Yet despite its flaws, the church was designed by God to allow us to continue to experience His presence in a very real and powerful way. Thus, as we are reminded in Heb 10:22a–25, “Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith … not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another—and all the more as we see the Day approaching.
Barry, J. D., Heiser, M. S., Custis, M., Mangum, D., & Whitehead, M. M. (2012). Faithlife Study Bible. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.