What did Jesus have in mind when he declared he would build his church (Matthew 16:18)?
Catholic hierarchy? Protestant associations? Street-corner buildings with good music? Organizations doing good in the community? A temple to replace the one Rome would destroy in Jerusalem?
In the Gospels, the word church is only in Matthew (16:18; 18:17). Mark, Luke, and John never have the word on Jesus’ lips. Did Matthew reframe Jesus’ thoughts with a word he never used? Here’s the problem:
Difficulty with tracing v. 18 in any form back to the historical Jesus has focused on the phrase ‘my church’. It is doubtful whether Jesus anticipated the emergence of the church as an entity separate from Israel.
— John Nolland, The Gospel of Matthew: A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 667.
Church makes no sense in this context, at least in the way we understand the word. Peter declares Jesus to be the Messiah — the long-awaited king of the Jewish people — and the king responds by saying he will build another religion outside Judaism?
Rather than reject Matthew’s statement as anachronistic, let’s explore what the word meant before Christians borrowed it.
What “church” meant in the pre-Christian world
In the Greek world, ekklēsia was a political word, an assembly called to resolve the issues of a city. In the Jewish world, it was a generic word for an assembly. There was another word for religious gatherings (synagōgē).
The Septuagint (Greek translation of the Old Testament) uses ekklēsia around 100 times. It usually translates the Hebrew word qā·hāl. The targums (Aramaic translations) used knyšh, so that was most likely the word Jesus used.
Tracing the word across these translations of the Old Testament provides a wealth of information about what it meant in a pre-Christian Jewish setting. Psalm 26 illustrates how ekklēsia can refer to an assembly of any kind: an “assembly of evildoers” (verse 5), and “the great assembly” that blesses the Lord (verse 12).
Deuteronomy used the word for Israel gathering to receive the Law from YHWH, e.g.
Dt 18 16 For this is what you asked of the Lord your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.” (NIV)
The Psalms also use the word for the people who gather around YHWH. For example, David laments his desolation in Psalm 22, promising that when God has restored him he will honour God’s name in the assembly that gathers around him:
Ps 22 22 I will declare your name to my people; in the assembly I will praise you. …
25 From you comes the theme of my praise in the great assembly; before those who fear you I will fulfill my vows [i.e. feeding the poor among his people — verse 26].
In Chronicles, ekklēsia primarily refers to the assembly gathered around the king, e.g.:
1 Chron 29 1 Then King David said to the whole assembly: “My son Solomon, the one whom God has chosen, is young and inexperienced. The task is great, because this palatial structure is not for man but for the Lord God.”
2 Chron 6 3 While the whole assembly of Israel was standing there, the king turned around and blessed them.
2 Chron 30 2 The king and his officials and the whole assembly in Jerusalem decided to celebrate the Passover in the second month. 3 They had not been able to celebrate it at the regular time because not enough priests had consecrated themselves and the people had not assembled in Jerusalem. 4 The plan seemed right both to the king and to the whole assembly.
In the theocracy of ancient Israel, modern notions of separation of church and state would have been incomprehensible. YHWH was their Law-giver, the sovereign who established Israel as his assembly. When they became a monarchy, the human king led the assembly that gathered around him to recognize the authority over him. Even when the kingship had failed (when Chronicles was written), they yearned for the idealized king (David and his son) to lead the people who assembled around him to be the assembly around Israel’s true king in heaven.
What Jesus meant by his church
Could Jesus’ use of ekklēsia in Matthew 16 make sense in this setting? Picture a son of David, a king with people assembled around him, a people who form an assembly under God. In the setting Matthew described, it would work like this:
Matthew 16:16-21 (interpretative expansion, compare NIV)
16 Simon Peter answered, “You are the anointed ruler, the heir with the authority of the living God.”
17 Jesus replied, “Bless you! You are Simon, son of Jonah. You recognized me as king not by tracing bloodlines but because my Father reigns in heaven.
18 I name you Rocky! You’re the first to recognize me like this, so you’re like a foundation stone. I will build my assembly, the people who gather around my kingship. No powers can block my reign: not even the gates of Death can prevent me establishing the kingship my Father has given me, the kingdom conferred by heaven.
19 The power trusted to me is not for myself. I will entrust you with the keys to unlock heaven’s kingship on earth. You (and by implication those who follow in your footsteps by recognizing me as king) will have that kind of power here on earth. As agents of heaven’s authority, what you do on earth will be recognized by my Father in heaven.
20 Now you’ve recognized me as king, here’s your first order! Do not tell anyone I’m king! 21 It’s too dangerous! Those who claim power in Jerusalem will kill me if they hear people saying I am king. You don’t yet understand the process through which my kingship will be established: the king dying for his people, being raised up on the third day.
What this means for us
When Jesus spoke of my church, he wasn’t picturing a bunch of people singing songs with stage lights and synthesizers. Building his church did not mean attracting people by putting on a good show each weekend so people want to come.
My church meant the community under my kingship. He intended to build this global community on people who, like Simon, recognized him as God’s appointed king. Other powers use Death to enforce their rule, but the defences of Death would not prevent Jesus restoring the world into God’s governance.
For Jesus, church meant the king’s agents, people with the authority to change the way things are on earth. Since Heaven gave him the kingdom, Heaven stands behind what his agents do on earth.
For Jesus, the relationship between kingdom and church was clear:
- The earth is his kingdom — by his Father’s decree.
- He builds his church — the community that recognizes his kingship.
- Church is servant to the king — the grass-roots implementation of his nonbureaucratic governance of everyone (his kingdom).
If we understood “church” as Jesus intended, what would we be doing? Comments welcome.
What others are saying
R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, NICNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2007), 623–624:
The unusual Greek word-order draws particular attention to the “my.” … The coming of Israel’s Messiah will cause that “assembly” to be reconstituted, and the focus of its identity will not be the nation of Israel, but the Messiah himself: it is his assembly. …
It conveys nothing of the formal, hierarchical structures which our word “ecclesiastical” now suggests. Indeed, as E. Schweizer has memorably shown, Matthew is remarkably free of evidence of any such formal structure in the Christian community of his time.