The Importance of the Local Church
1. Some Principles for Biblical Interpretation
In an age where there is an explosion of ‘private interpretations’ it is necessary to lay down some ground rules for this important subject. There are two terms that require a definition to aid our understanding:
Exegesis= the intended meaning of Scripture
Eisogesis= reading into Scripture something that is not there.
As can be deduced from these two terms, our aim must always be to investigate the intended meaning of Scripture, while desperately avoiding the superimposition of our thoughts, opinions and traditions (some traditions can be as new as post 1970) upon the inspired writings.
Hermeneutics is the science of interpretation and this subject considers the rules that are applied for interpretation. Here are three rules that were recovered by the Reformers following much mystical handling of Scripture during of the Middle Ages.
1. The analogy of faith (Sacred Scripture is its own interpreter, we should compare Scripture with Scripture because it does not contradict itself as one united mind of God). Confessions of faith have attempted historically to summarise the key biblical themes.
2. Determine its literal sense (one interpretation, many applications). This involves determining the literary genre: Is a book history, wisdom, an epistle etc? Different rules apply at different times; for example Jesus ‘I am the door’ (John 10: 9) but this is metaphorically, not literally).
3. Grammatical-historical analysis; this considers the historical context in which the inspired words, verbs, nouns etc. were given in Hebrew and Greek language settings.
A method that was commonly used by Martyn Lloyd Jones in his preaching was something he learned from the world of physicians, namely the ‘skittle method’. This involves the identification of all the different views on a passage and then by the process of elimination using biblical analysis, the one remaining is the correct one.
2. The Teaching of Jesus on the Church
Wayne Mack states that ‘there is nothing outside the Trinity itself that God loves more than the church for which He died.’
Our starting point must always be to turn firstly to our Lord Jesus Christ and there are two direct references to the church in two passages in Matthew’s gospel. This gospel was written primarily for the Jewish Christians and contains a lot of OT references to give continuity with the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets.
Matthew 16: 13-28
13 Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, He [began] asking His disciples, saying, "Who do people say that the Son of Man is?"
14 And they said, "Some [say] John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets."
15 He *said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"
16 And Simon Peter answered and said, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God."
17 And Jesus answered and said to him, "Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal [this] to you, but My Father who is in heaven.
18 "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades shall not overpower it.
19 "I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; and whatever you shall bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven."
20 Then He warned the disciples that they should tell no one that He was the Christ.
This marks a different season in the ministry of our Lord at the end of the Galilean ministry and Christ interestingly uses the word church or ekklesia for the first time. Two key points that impact our doctrine of the church are our understanding of the word church and the rock upon which the church is to be built.
A. What is the meaning of the word ‘Church’?
Ekklesia is the Greek word that the NT uses for church and it means a ‘called out assembly or congregation’. In contemporary Greek culture it was used for a governing assembly in a city but there is an OT usage. The OT was translated into Greek to produce the Septuagint (LXX) and therefore key Greek terms can be traced more easily. The concept of church as an assembly or congregation is not a new concept in biblical thinking; a congregation in the name of Jesus, the messiah however was new. This was to be God’s new congregation and fulfilment of all the law and prophets.
OT usage means ‘to meet or come together at an appointed place’ (qahal) and was rendered church or synagogue in the Greek translation. An example is Deuteronomy 4: 10
"[Remember] the day you stood before the LORD your God at Horeb, when the LORD said to me, 'Assemble the people (qahal is used here) to Me, that I may let them hear My words so they may learn to fear Me all the days they live on the earth, and that they may teach their children.'
Some contemporary Misunderstandings of Church
I. An individual states that ‘I am the church and I do not need to go to a church.’ This is foolish, just as any individual British citizen who may claim that, ‘I am the United Kingdom’. This is a corporate term.
II. Again rampant individualism rears its ugly head when it is asserted that someone does not need to go to ‘church’ because three or four people meet for Bible study in someone’s front room. The church is an organised, public assembly. The dividing line between a group of disciples and a church appears to be the ordination of elders
Acts 14: 21-23 And after they had preached the gospel to that city and had made many disciples, they returned to Lystra and to Iconium and to Antioch, strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith, and [saying,] "Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God." And when they had appointed elders for them in every church, having prayed with fasting, they commended them to the Lord in whom they had believed.)
Watching Christian TV or going to a Christian conference does not represent the church in pure biblical terms.
III. Sometimes people imagine wrongly that the church here refers to the universal church. Christ refers to each individual local assembly, together constituting a part of the whole church that gathers in the name of Jesus. It is an unbiblical myth to claim to be a Christian who belongs to the universal church, who refuses to join oneself to be rooted in a local congregation. This is an unbiblical licence for doing ‘your own thing’ and it represents an ignorant and blatant rejection of the call to NT discipleship.
B. What is this Rock (Matt. 16: 18)?
Four potential interpretations:
1. Peter was the first Pope
This has to be rejected immediately because there is no evidence that the Roman Catholic church is the direct spiritual lineage of Peter or indeed that is what is being taught by Christ here.
2. The Church is built on the individual’s revelation from the Father and the subsequent confession ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.’
This confession is to be accepted as a foundational part of the church but not as the intended meaning of Rock here.
3. The rock is Christ.
There has been much made of the difference between Peter (Petros meaning stone) and Petra meaning ‘rock’ in reference to Christ. However this is not the natural sense of the teaching of Christ here.
4. The rock is Peter.
This is the natural force of the teaching of Christ here that Peter is the rock upon which the church is built, that being that Peter is the God ordained instrument of God for the founding of the church. This harmonises with grammatical use applied to Peter in this passage: I will give you the keys; whatever you bind etc.
C. How do we apply this teaching of Christ?
The first twelve chapters mostly involve Peter’s leadership, preaching and pasturing as a God-given gift to establish the church. Here are some aspects of Peter to consider;
· He was renamed Peter from Simon by Christ in John 1: 42. We should expect leaders in the church to be ‘rocklike’.
· Peter was called, trained and equipped as a lively preacher of the gospel (Acts chapters 2-12). The church grows with the primary means of the preaching of the apostolic gospel.
· Peter was an evangelistic preacher (Acts 2: 38 ff); the keys open and close the doors of the kingdom through gospel preaching and discipline to close the doors (1 Cor. 5: 1-5, 2 Cor. 2: 8).
· Binding and loosing represents spiritual authority not spiritual warfare: Hendriksen explains that this refers to forbidding and permitting and relates to delegated authority to get the job done.
· Peter was more than a preacher; he was a leader sent to the church by Christ. We must pray for these workers to be sent into the church (Matthew 9: 38) and the church is founded on this foundation (Ephesians 2:20) and it is Christ who sends men to the church as pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4: 11 ff).
· Preaching elders with leadership gifts and the grace to shepherd the flock is the rock upon which the church is built in every generation. Calvin stated that ‘the chief sinew by which the whole church is knit together is the office of pastor.’
Next time, the Lord willing, we will look at Matthew 18 and our Lord’s next use of the word church in the New Testament.