Impressive Christian cathedrals, especially those in Europe, such as the Cologne Cathedral in Germany, the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, France, and the Duono Cathedral in Milan, Italy, awe visitors throughout the world. These are representative of cathedrals dedicated to Christian worship throughout the world. Many of them display spectacular spires, which can signify strength (from the word "spear"), piety, wealth, prestige and even martial power.
Most people view the church as a building. But the Bible defines the term church quite differently, focusing on the people God calls instead of a building.
What then did Jesus mean when He said, "I will build My church" (Matthew 16:18)? Was He referring to the magnificent cathedrals that would eventually be built?
Cathedrals of the world
The architecture of the great cathedrals of this world is sometimes astonishing.
The Cologne Cathedral "is the seat of the Catholic Archbishop of Cologne. Cologne Cathedral is the greatest Gothic cathedral in Germany and has been this city's most famous landmark for centuries. Once the tallest building in the world, Cologne Cathedral still boasts the world's largest church façade.
"The foundation stone of Cologne Cathedral was laid on August 15, 1248...The completion of Germany's largest cathedral was celebrated as a national event in 1880, 632 years after construction had begun" (www.sacred-destinations.com/germany/cologne-cathedral; this Web site is an ecumenical guide to more than 1,250 sacred sites in over 60 countries around the world).
The Cologne Cathedral rises some 515 feet (157 meters).
The external architecture of this imposing edifice boggles the mind. How could the builders of such a great cathedral construct such high-rising spires when technology was so rudimentary? The interior is equally as impressive.
After experiencing this remarkable building, one may find other ordinary churches insignificant in comparison. Yet the Bible focuses on a totally different type of church. God's Word defines and describes its humble yet powerful composition, construction and value.
How do the Bible and Jesus define the Church?
In the New Testament, church is translated from the Greek word ecclesia, which can be defined as a calling out, an assembly or a congregation.
Church, in the Bible, is not described as a cathedral or any sort of building. The first-century Church brethren met in members' private residences (Romans 16:5; 1 Corinthians 16:19), as they sometimes do today. The apostle Paul sometimes spoke to brethren, as well as potential converts and perhaps curious listeners, in various Jewish synagogues.
The Bible uses the word church to represent God's people as "called-out ones." Paul wrote "to the church of God which is at Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all who in every place call on the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours" (1 Corinthians 1:2).
The very early true Church of the New Testament had no cathedrals. These huge buildings began to be built a few hundred years later after another church organization with different doctrines and beliefs, emerged, competing with the true Church of God.
This false church organization developed outside the apostolic influence of the Bible and worked assiduously to avoid anything that appeared Jewish, attempting to use Paul's writings to construct unbiblical Christian dogma. How ironic: Christians claiming Christ while ignoring that Jesus was a Jew. This worldview made it easier for them to exchange Sunday for the weekly Sabbath and Christmas and Easter for God's annual festivals (see Leviticus 23).
The Catholic Church speaks for itself: "Nothing in the comportment of Jesus gave the slightest hint that he would have considered it preferable to transfer the Sabbath observance to any other day. With the spread of Christianity to a Gentile milieu surrounding, especially by Paul, the problem had to be posed and decided: Christians were not bound by Jewish practices as such but only insofar as these embodied the natural law" (New Catholic Encyclopedia, second edition, 2003, "Natural-law and Transfer to Sunday," Vol. 12, p. 459).
"The earliest Christians did not immediately dissociate themselves from the observance of the Jewish feasts. Many references in the New Testament indicate that Jesus and His disciples, as well as the early Palestinian Christian communities, observed the Sabbath and the major annual festivals" (ibid., "Early Christian Feasts," Vol. 5, p. 656).
But over time it seems new Christian converts refused to give up their pagan festivals, so new religious teachings and celebrations were created to help "Christianize" them. And as this new church became recognized by the state, the cathedral became the grand sanctuary and a focal point for this new religious blend.
How does this square with Jesus' declaration, "I will build My church"?
The Church that Jesus is building
If great Christian cathedrals or even modest church buildings with pagan accoutrements do not exemplify the Church that Jesus said He would build, how did Christ go about building His Church?
Matthew shows that Jesus built His Church on Himself. "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it [i.e., it will never die out]" (Matthew 16:18).
Contrary to conventional religious opinion, Jesus didn't say He would build His Church on Peter. He simply acknowledged that Peter was a small piece of rock (Greek, petros), but that He would build the Church on Himself, a great mass of rock (Greek, petra).
This key opens the door to the Church that Jesus is building. The Church built on Jesus Christ is made up of humble people (1 Corinthians 1:26-31), not ostentatious buildings.
Another key to entering Christ's Church is what constitutes His building materials. These include spiritual values such as love, hope, faith, joy, peace, patience, wisdom and humility, to name a few. Only the Master Builder, Christ Jesus, can build His Church with these spiritual materials.
At Christ's return, God's Church will grow prodigiously and cover the entire earth throughout His millennial rule (Isaiah 11:9; Daniel 7:27).
Paul speaks of the New Testament Church as Christ's building that He now inhabits and that He causes to grow. "Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit" (Ephesians 2:19-22).
The apostle Peter further refers to the Church as living stones. "Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ" (1 Peter 2:4-5).
This is why Jesus said, "I will build My church." Remarkably, this is only the beginning.
A much greater Church to come
The current Church of God, important as it is to Christ, is a type of what God has in mind for humanity's future. Although God the Father calls out many, He chooses only a few (those who respond to His call), in this present evil age (John 6:44; Acts 2:39; Galatians 1:4).
After Christ returns and removes all deceitful human and angelic tyrants (Revelation 19:11-21; 20:1-3), He will reign as the sovereign ruler of this earth. His established Kingdom on earth will allow all humanity to become a part of God's Church. At that time, all people will understand the pure truths of God. "For all shall know Me, from the least of them to the greatest of them" (Hebrews 8:11).
Jesus Christ prophesied that He would praise God the Father before an international congregation in the 1,000-year period and beyond (calling those things that aren't yet as if they were; see Romans 4:17). "My praise shall be of You in the great assembly; I will pay My vows before those who fear Him" (Psalm 22:25).
This, then, is a more complete picture of what Jesus meant when He said, "I will build My church." With God's calling, you can become a part of God's Church if you desire. In addition, if you do, Christ can make you a substantial part of His growing spiritual temple: "He who overcomes, I will make him a pillar in the temple of My God" (Revelation 3:12). WNP