The "Universal Church" -- The Scriptural Concept
New Testament Church Series #7
In Matthew 16:18 Jesus promised to build "my church" and Paul, in Ephesians 2:11-22, gives a detailed word picture of what this church is. Following is a brief summary of these verses and then some lessons we can learn about the church that is here described.
Paul begins this section by reminding the Gentiles of their former spiritual condition, vss. 11-12.
But something happened that changed this condition. In connection with Christ, the formerly estranged Gentiles are brought near by Christ's death, vs. 13.
The reason this is possible is that Christ is our means of having spiritual peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles one in his death by breaking down that which divided them, the old law, resulting in the creation of one new man, one body, vss. 14-16.
Through the agency of the apostles and others he came and preached that it was possible for all men to be at peace with God. This message was proclaimed to both Jews and Gentiles, enabling both groups to come into a relationship with God, vss. 17-18.
As a result of this, the Gentiles are no longer alienated either from the Jews or from God but enjoy the benefits of citizenship in a kingdom and children in a family. This relationship is built upon the foundation, Jesus Christ, who is the basis of the message preached by the apostles and prophets, vss. 19-20.
In our mutual relationship with Christ we all grow into a "holy temple", a "habitation of God in the Spirit", vss. 21-22.
What conclusions can we reach about Paul's statements in these verses?
The "in" phrases describe a relationship--fellowship with Deity: "in Christ Jesus" (vs. 13), "in himself" (vs. 15), "in the Lord" (vs. 21)-(see also the "in" phrases in 1:3-14). It might be good to cite Thayer at this point on the significance of the preposition "in": "6. Of that in which any person or thing is inherently fixed, implanted, or with which it is intimately connected; a. of the whole in which a part inheres...b. of a person to whom another is wholly joined and to whose power and influence he is subject, so that the former may be likened to the place in which the latter lives and moves. So used in the writings of Paul and of John particularly of intimate relationship with God or with Christ, and for the most part involving contextually the idea of power and blessing resulting from that union; ...ingrafted as it were in Christ, in fellowship and union with Christ, with the Lord... Since such union with Christ is the basis on which actions and virtues rest, the expression is equivalent in meaning to by virtue of spiritual fellowship with Christ;..." p. 211. "In Christ" is not the equivalent of "inside of", as is too often preached and diagramed, making "the church" something other than fellowship with the Lord; some nebulous "thing" that we get "into".
Paul calls this new relationship "one new man" (vs. 15), "one body" (vs. 16; Eph. 1:22-23; Col. 3:15), "the household of God" (vs. 19; Gal. 6:10), "a holy temple"(vs. 21; 1 Cor. 3:16-17)---all obvious references to the church in its broadest (universal) sense. Other descriptive phrases are "the church of the firstborn" (Heb. 12:23) and "the brotherhood" (1 Pet. 2:17). More on these last two passages shortly.
This relationship is composed of people. "Both" (vss. 14,16,18) refers to Jews ("them that were nigh") and Gentiles ("you that were far off"), vs. 17, and "each several building", vs. 21, is a reference to each person that makes up "the holy temple"
In Heb. 12:23 "firstborn ones" are under consideration. While "firstborn" sometimes refers to a single person (Christ, Col. 1:15,18), it here refers to those born-again ones "who are enrolled in heaven". All who have been born again are "assembled" in Christ. The "brotherhood" Peter speaks of in 1 Pet. 2:17 is a "hood" of brothers, not congregations of brothers (a church made up of other churches would be called a "churchhood"). These passages make it clear that Jesus' church is people. Christ made it possible for men to have a relationship with God when he built "the church", He didn't build or die for some "institution" or "organization" that we join or are added to. Christ's church is not one thing and the people something else.
It is a relationship made possible (a) by Christ's death: "made nigh in the blood of Christ" (vs. 13), (b) the preaching of this message: "he came and preached peace" (vs. 17) and (c) our obedient response ("by grace through faith", 2:8, is the message of this epistle). God's grace has provided the means of our salvation, Jesus Christ, and man through faith ("in whom we have boldness and access in confidence through our faith in him", 3:13) responds obediently to the preaching of the "unsearchable riches of Christ" (3:8). "My church"--as revealed in the above passages--is exactly what we saw in our definitions. Christ calls all men to come out of the world and serve him. Those who do so have many things in common (note the repeated use of "fellow" in Eph. 3:6, ASV). They are "assembled" in Christ and, whether in life or death (Rev. 14:13), enjoy his fellowship and all attendant blessings. This "church" manifests itself on earth, not in some organized structure, but as Christ is enthroned in the hearts of men (1 Pet. 3:15; Lk. 17:21) and they live lives that praise the glorious grace of God that has so richly blessed them (Eph. 1:6,12,14)
By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 5.7; July 1998