There is a lot of misunderstanding about church. It would have been interesting if Jesus had asked the disciples in Matthew 16:13ff, “What do people say the church is?” But of course, the church didn’t exist at that time, so He couldn’t do that. Still, the text has it right—what we think about Christ is primary and what we think about the church is secondary. It is by no means unimportant, for Christ loves the church and gave Himself for her (Ephesians 5:25). Nonetheless, it is the Christ of the church who is everything rather than the church of Christ. It is not the seven lampstands John wants to talk about in Revelation 1—it is the Christ among them He directs our attention to. The sooner we come to grips with this, the healthier we will be. We must decrease, and He must increase.
In connection with this, Jesus speaks of Himself as builder of the church (v. 18). As with the church, our faith is about what we will do only in a secondary sense; it is primarily about what He has done and is doing. And what He promises here is that He will build His church.
And what exactly does He mean by that? The word He uses, and the translators render as “church” is ekklesia. It is a wordthat was used by the Greeks to refer to any called out group of people. In Acts 19 it refers to a meeting of business people (v. 32, 41). In that same chapter it also has to do with a legal gathering (v. 39). Similarly, Jesus is promising here to build His community of believers—people who are called out from the world to follow Him (see Matthew 16:24-25). That’s what the church is—it is a corporate name for people who follow Jesus. If you have been born of the water and the Spirit, you are a disciple of Jesus and part of His community, His ekklesia.
People often use this text to speak of Jesus establishing just one church in contrast to all of the different churches that exist. I get that, I have certainly used this passage that way. However, that’s not really what’s under consideration here and to apply it that way is to misconstrue the text.
It’s not unlike the little boy who patters into his parents’ room in the middle of the night and wakes up his mother. He wants to get in bed with them. Mom sleepily responds that he’s too big for that and besides, Dad likes to sleep with her, so there’s not any room. The boy patters around to the other side of the bed, glares at his father and says, “You big baby!”
Just as he mistook his parents’ oneness (as expressed by them sleeping together) for his father’s inability to sleep by himself, we can misunderstand how Jesus uses ekklesia here. He is not speaking here of local churches of a particular brand, but rather His universal community of called out people. It embraces all who have ever been or will ever be born again of water and Spirit. How would it make sense for Him to speak of this group in any other way than in the singular? (It might be helpful for some to substitute the word “kingdom” for church to appreciate this).
To be sure, there’s more to said about the church then what’s in this text, but what we need to see here is that Jesus promised to build His church and He’s been doing just that for nearly two thousand years. The key to Jesus isn’t the church; the key to the church is Jesus!