Please enjoy this article from Exec. Director, Jon Spellman.
Originally published at www.jonspellman.com, republished with permission from the author.
So, what did Jesus really say about his Church?
…yes, it’s another article about “Ekklesia” but this one’s really good!
Now, I will warn you ahead of time, this is longer than my usual articles so give yourself enough time to really dive in.
I look forward to your thoughts on the matter!
So, what did Jesus really have to say about his Church? Or, maybe more important, what did his disciples hear him say? I think we all could agree that at times, they aren’t the same thing. To get to the bottom of these pressing questions, let’s take a moment and eavesdrop on a conversation between Jesus and his disciples, shall we? In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 16, we find a record of one of those “teaching moments” Jesus is so famous for. While his words were instructive for his disciples then, and continue to be now some two millennia later, the context for the conversation makes his words all the more important.
As we lean in to listen a little closer, we should take a moment to familiarize ourselves with the cultural, civic and spiritual climate of the day. These contextual realities shape Jesus’ decisions when he is selecting his words. Understanding Jesus’ very meticulously chosen phraseology is vital in order to arrive at a full embrace of his teaching. As we turn our attention to this conversation, listen in with the following questions attached like filters to your spiritual ears:
-Who are the people that Jesus is talking to?
-Where are they when the conversation is taking place?
-What did Jesus actually say to them about the organism he would eventually leave on Earth to advance his Kingdom?
-FInally, and most importantly, What did they hear him say?
Now, let’s listen in…
Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, others say Elijah, and others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church (Ekklesia), and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:13-19, ESV)
Words are really important. They mean things, important things. (We’re in some DEEP water now boys!) Spoken words are designed to communicate thoughts; thoughts happen in pictures. We have to know that for Jesus, the quintessential teacher, careful selection of words to be used in describing very important concepts was undoubtedly of paramount importance. What I’m saying is, I don’t think he just casually tossed words around, leaving it up to the hearer to surmise his intended message. Remember, words are really important… They mean things!
We’ve probably all played the party game “telephone” at some unfortunate time in our lives. One party-goer begins at one end of a line of people and whispers softly some phrase into the ear of his neighbor. The neighbor turns and whispers it to the next person in line and so on and so forth. By the time the last person in line states aloud what he heard from his messenger, “aliens have taken over our numbers” may have become “a peon is shaken out of his slumber.” Good times for all!
The Telephone Effect
Now, without the benefit of a time-machine, we can’t be absolutely certain of which colloquial language this group used while chatting in closed company, but the scholarly consensus is Aramaic. Since the oldest available versions of New Testament text were written in Greek, right out of the gates there is at least one degree of “telephone effect” to be overcome as we spy on Jesus and the Disciples. Some hold to the possibility that they did speak Greek but I find that to be unlikely. Remember, these were “uneducated and common men” (Acts 4:13), fishermen, tradesmen and traitors. Add to that the reality that they were a conquered people, living in an occupied region and it’s easy to see how nationalistic pride alone would preclude them from embracing the language of their despised conquerors! This is a very real dilemma, but not insurmountable.
A solid understanding of language as a tool will help us overcome this challenge. When we consider that words, be they spoken or written, are simply conveying a thought or an idea that originates as a picture or image in the mind, we can conclude that written and spoken language are somewhat interchangeable. Think of it this way, as a communicator, if I wanted you to visualize a black German Shepherd, there is a wide array of available language tools to communicate that image. “Negro del pastor aleman,” “berger allemand noir,” “ciobanesc german negru,” or “black German Shepherd,” all of these words, spoken or written, are completely accurate! The only factor that determines which one I choose to employ is the context into which I speak.
Really smart people who study linguistics for a living will tell you that about 70-90% (depending on who you ask) of communication is non-verbal, relying on inflection, facial expressions and gestures. I have observed personally that when trying to dial in on a person’s meaning, if I know first the context, general field and then the topic of conversation, I am much quicker to grasp what he is really trying to say. “Scope” has an entirely different meaning for a deer-hunter than it does for a doctor and is completely dissimilar to what a teacher or engineer would use it for! Context is everything!
By now, you’re probably thinking, “Jon, please get to the point! I thought we were engaging in yet another stimulating discussion of the Ekkelsia?” (As if there aren’t enough of those already) We are, I promise! We will go ahead and get to the point. Let’s revisit the four questions I asked you to “listen through” as we looked in on Jesus’ conversation with his disciples. As we do, I expect some pretty interesting revelations to begin to break open in your heart about this thing that we have so casually come to call “Church.”
-Who are the people that Jesus is talking to?-
Jewish men, mostly from Capernaum and Bethsaida along the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee. This little piece of information is vital to answering the most important of these four questions. This is so important that we need to mine down into it a little, going backwards just a bit so that we can move forward with clarity.
Throughout human history, nations have risen and fallen. It’s just the natural order of things. Seemingly unconquerable empires, such as Assyria and Babylon, fell under the military and economic weight of the next tyrant in line. Each conquering King had his own, preferred method of conquest. Some chose the “slash and burn” approach, opting to simply eradicate the populace while moving his people into the cities and countryside of the conquered (think Assyria…). Others would displace the peasantry while keeping the best and brightest for assimilation (does Nebuchadnezzar ring a bell?). When Rome came to power, Augustus employed a somewhat different approach. He wanted to preserve the appearance of a republic-type governance system, appeasing the population by embracing a federation style instead of a monarchy. At least in appearances anyway… There was a fairly tolerant environment where tribal/cultural norms could pass freely between the multitude of ethnic groups within the empire.
Ethnic and religion-specific people groups within the Roman Empire were allowed a great deal of autonomy, provided they didn’t revolt and stir up trouble and, oh yeah I almost forgot, paid their taxes to Caesar. Remember Jesus’ very famous statement “render unto Caesar that which is his…”? (Matthew 22:21) That instruction was spoken within the same cultural context as the conversation from Matthew 16. It seems, when it comes to taxes, the more things change the more they stay the same, right? They were even allowed to “self-govern” (within reason) according to their unique ethnic and religious laws. The basic understand on the street was, “Rome will allow us to maintain our own ethnic identity and take care of our own business so long as we pay up and don’t cause trouble.” So you can imagine how important it would be for a mechanism to be in place to take care of community business, without disturbing the Roman government. That mechanism, when said in the Greek language, was the Ekklesia.
Ekklesia was a patently Hellenistic idea, brought forward into Roman culture, mostly as an aspirational ideal. Ekklesia, during the Grecian Empire, was a word that described a legitimate democratic body. The “called for” gathering of adult male citizens could actually hold government officials accountable and bring about real reforms when necessary! Now, during the era of the Caesars a few hundred years later, in real practice, there wasn’t much room for democracy but the idea of Ekklesia continued to pervade hellenistic thinking. If there were issues that needed to be taken care of, disputes to be settled, or judgments to be made within the community, Ekklesia could be called for and peaceful living within the Roman Empire could be maintained.
-Where are they when the conversation is taking place?-
Caesarea Philippi. Even the name of this city was a reminder of the civic realities facing the Jews. Phillip the Tetrarch, after whom the city was named, was a jewish “king” allowed to rule by the good graces of the Emperor. The city was named after both Caesar and Phillip, with Caesar named first. Maybe it’s just me but that detail seems significant! This was a constant reminder of the fact that the Hebrews, the once proud people who thumbed their collective noses at the the great Pharaoh; the Children of Israel, the chosen seed of Abraham, were now a subservient race… Ouch. Try living with that…
-What did Jesus actually say to them about the organism he would eventually leave on Earth to advance his Kingdom?-
Now, this is where it gets really interesting! We have to remember that Jesus had at this disposal an extensive lexicon of available words to describe what he “saw” in his mind. He was an emerging jewish Rabbi so maybe it would make sense for him to select a word to describe a synagogue, temple or rabbinic school? Perhaps a new sect of Judaism would be in order? No! This is not the direction that Jesus took in this conversation! This is one of those cases were the choice of the word NOT to use may be as important as the choice of which word to use. It’s instructive that Jesus chose to reach way into the secular lexicon and pull out a word to describe a community organization. Remember, Ekklesia… From the people, for the people’s good.
Jesus did not envision just another religious order to supplant previous ones; what he envisioned was a set of people, called out from the society at large to bring about a new way of being! It’s unfortunate that we now, after 2000+ years of church history, interpret his words in purely religious overtones. A simple Google search of the word will churn up thousands of page hits, all assigning definitions with blatantly religious connotations. The problem is this, as we eavesdrop on Jesus’ dialog with Peter and the rest of the disciples, we are trying to read their lips in our context, not theirs. Jesus did not have religion in mind, I believe he was thinking about community.
-What did they hear him say in their context?-
This is the all-important question. The ultimate goal of spoken and written communication is for the hearer to hear what the communicator is conveying so that he can fully “see” what is visualized in the mind. If you know me personally, you know that I am an island in an ocean of estrogen. I have three daughters, two female cats, female dogs and I suspect that the goldfish in the tank are girls too! I know how it feels to not be understood, it happens with startling regularity. Many times, I think I’ve communicated what’s in my heart but all to often, what they hear is entirely different! It’s frustrating to say the least.
Just the other day, two of my girls (I won’t name them) were starting down that familiar road of bickering that we parents have grown to recognize pretty easily. You know how you can just tell that a conversation isn’t going to end well? I could see it clearly but I didn’t think they could! And I simply wanted to help them avoid the trouble that they were going to wind up in if their conversation escalated. I was just trying to help! Honest! So, I simply said to one of them “stop talking to your sister.” (Problem solved!) It made perfect sense to me! But what she heard was something entirely different, and the dark cloud descended… In her mind, I didn’t value her words and didn’t understand her; she was in trouble for something she hadn’t even done yet and I didn’t trust her to resolve the conversation in a healthy way. Oh man, I just wanted them to not bicker! I didn’t communicate that very well apparently. I think I have some work to do.
The communicator has to do his best to ensure that the ones hearing can fully understand his intended message. I’m pretty sure Jesus accomplished that. He took into account all factors at hand: who he was talking to, where they were and the social/governmental climate of the day, and his precise selection of words. With all of this in view, I believe the disciples heard something close to the following:
“Peter, you have spoken correctly, I am the Christ, the anointed one sent from God to rescue people from their mess. And you know what? You didn’t come up with this on your own or by your own human reason! God has opened your understanding! Now that you understand who I am, you can begin to comprehend what I’m about to do… I am going to build an organism among these people of earth that will:
-Be made up of people from communities everywhere.
-Be concerned for the condition of the surrounding communities of people.
-Make decisions and judgments and act on behalf of those communities.
-Extend the grace of God for repentance from sin and salvation for any who believe.
There’s nothing that the powers of Hell can do to resist this organism that I will build, of that you can be certain! The Kingdom of God will be extended as a result of this body of mine that will be left here. It is my new kind of Ekklesia and it will persist until the day of my return!
When Jesus carefully and precisely selected his words to describe the organism that he would build here on earth, he intentionally chose words that carried secular and governmental images, NOT religious ones! I believe that to be an important, yet often overlooked, reality. The problem we face is that early on, the word Ekklesia found in the earliest Greek texts of the New Testament was rightly interpreted to mean “church” but the interpretation happened inside walls of religious construct. So the word had religious and institutional connotations attached early on that simply stuck. Jesus did not describe a new religious institution, buildings or programs, he described a collection of people, called out from the communities to function on behalf of the communities. Only to the extent that religious institutions, buildings and programs fit within that framework can they lay claim to the authentic definition of “church.”
In our Church leadership communities, boards and councils, are we driven by questions like:
“How are the people in our communities hurting, lost and broken?”
“How can we deliberate to come up with solutions that will bring them to wholeness in Christ?”
Or does the progression of thought sound more like: “How do we make budget and add more rooms to gather in?”
The Church as Jesus envisioned her does not exist separate from the community at large! Yet we still seem to spend an inordinate amount of time isolated from the community, holed up in our religious cocoons, hoping that people will somehow file in, take their seats and watch our show. We then are baffled when attendance is down and “church” is found way out on the margins of people’s lives.
-A final thought.-
“…the gates of hell shall not prevail against it!” Man, now that will preach! Yet somehow, and on this point I think we can all agree, the gates of Hell are clearly prevailing mightily over a lot of things that we have identified as “church.” So either Jesus was dishonest, or we have mislabeled some things. We have to remember that Jesus made that promise regarding the organism that he would build. We don’t get to appropriate its benefits for institutions that we build with our own strength, on our own charisma, and with our own strategies. We can be confident that his promise will be true regarding his Church, but if we want it to apply to us and our endeavors, we have to find our place within that organism.