In Matthew 16:18, the word Jesus used for "church" is ekklesia (Strong's #1577), and it is so translated in the King James Version 115 times. This Greek word means "an assembly" or "a group of people called together for a purpose." It contains no implication at all of sacredness or holiness.
In practical usage, it commonly identified people called by a magistrate for a public service of some sort. This is how it is used in Acts 19:32, 39, and 41:
Some therefore cried one thing and some another, for the assembly was confused, and most of them did not know why they had come together. . . . But if you have any other inquiry to make, it shall be determined in the lawful assembly. . . . And when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly. (Emphasis ours.)
Each time, ekklesia is translated as "assembly" and names what could easily be described as a mob of excited and confused people. However, the writers of the New Testament clearly agreed this was the word that best fit the groups of Christians called of God for service to Him. How did it come to be translated as "church" when the word "assembly" fits more accurately?
This change apparently has its beginning in another, far different Greek word, kuriakos (Strong's #2960). Kurios, the Greek word for "Lord," is easily recognizable as the root of kuriakos, which means "belonging to the Lord." Curiously, according to Joseph T. Shipley, author of The Origins of English Words, pp. 183-184, the root of kurios and kuriakos literally means "to bend or curve."
In the course of time, kuriakos was picked up by the Scots as kirk. Shipley shows that kirk and kuriakos share the same root. In the Scottish language, kirk indicates a place or a location, as in a building belonging to the Lord. The kirk became the place where the assembly bent before God in reverence, as in prayer, appealing to Him; or bent looking upward in praise of God; or where God bent in extending mercy.
As more time passed, the English pronunciation of kirk changed to "church." Thus "church," which indicates a building, a place where God is worshipped, gradually evolved to include, not just the place, but also the people who worshipped there and the worship services too. The modern English Reader's Digest Great Encyclopedic Dictionary reflects this in its definitions for church: "1. A building for Christian worship. 2. Regular religious services. 3. A local congregation of Christians." We regularly use all three in our everyday speech and writing, allowing the context to indicate which is intended.
However, in the Bible the word "church" never refers to a building or to worship services held within the building. It always refers to the assembly, group, or congregation of called-out ones who belong to the Lord, worship Him, and fellowship with others of the same mind.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Is There a True Church?
Upon establishing His church, Christ affirms that it would not die out, but continue until His return. This means a body of true believers has continued from Pentecost AD 31 until today. Revelation 2-3 is written in such a way that any Christian in any century could examine it and conclude he had some characteristics of each era, just as we can today.
As described in Revelation 2:1-7, the record of the Ephesian church closely resembles what happened to the apostolic church. Research done in the early days of the Worldwide Church of God also showed a close parallel between Smyrna, Pergamos, and Thyatira and the sketchy history of true believers until the modern age. This information indicates a possible succession of eras.
The Seven Churches: Eras?
Does this say the church will never die out? Yes, but only indirectly.
The translation of one word, "prevail," alters the focus of what Jesus says. It could also be rendered "stand." By choosing to translate the word as "prevail," it changes the church from being on the offensive against the kingdom of Satan, represented by the word "Hades," to being on the defensive, as continually under attack.
Jesus is promising that He would enable His church to be on the offensive and triumphant against Satan and death. Is the church constantly under attack? Of course it is, and there have been several times that, as far as we know, it has almost died out, but it has always emerged triumphant and continued on.
How was this accomplished? Jesus Christ would raise up a man to preach the gospel once again. Peter Waldo is one of the clearer examples. In the process, he became the one God used to call others into His truth, and around him, He formed a continuation of the church of God. Using this interpretation, even the first-century apostles, as they took the gospel into new areas, became weak types of Elijah—as did all the men God used down through the ages, like Peter Waldo.
Each of them, in type, had to reestablish things and preach repentance in preparation for the receiving of the gospel and the Messiah. But not a single one of them was the Elijah to come because that office and prophecy—by Jesus' own words—has already been fulfilled, and there is no higher authority.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Elijah and John the Baptist
When Jesus said, "I will build My church" (Matthew 16:18), He was not describing a church in its normal English usage, as an organization with buildings, offices, services, and activities. He was implying a fellowship of believers. God's ekklesia is not a church in the denominational sense, but a fellowship of all believers in Jesus Christ, not identifying it with any particular group men might establish, but embracing all who fit the Bible's qualifications. So, when the biblical writers use ekklesia in a context involving God and His people, they are drawing attention to the transcendent purpose for which God calls them out.
In a majority of scriptures, the ekklesia is the whole of God's people, of which a congregation, a denomination, or a corporate entity form but a part. Remember the classical Greek usage: Ekklesia included all the citizens of Athens. An army parallel may help illustrate the point. A division is part of an army. The army has several divisions. So then a division is an element of a greater army, and the army in turn is part of something even greater, the nation. Ekklesia, in this analogy, is the nation. In the Bible it is most often used in this sense.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Guard the Truth!
Multitudes of organizations in the Protestant world have no idea of what the church actually consists. This illustrates that even on the simplest of levels, the Bible is a "coded" book. Many refer to a physical building or a legal corporate structure as the church. Few seem to understand the church consists of the members themselves. The word "church" is translated from the Greek ekklesia, meaning "called-out" or "assembly." The "church in the wilderness" consisted of those called out of physical Egypt; the New Testament church are those called out of the spiritual Egypt of false belief and practice dominating this world. Without this knowledge, it is extremely difficult to identify the church Christ built.
Biblical Symbolism: Symbols of the Church
Jesus is prophesying here. Clearly, He intends His church to continue until His return, but He does not say it will always express the same personality. Is not a purpose of prophecy to provide the church with signs along the way to prepare for His coming? The letters in Revelation chapters 2 and 3 provide some of these signs.
John W. Ritenbaugh
The Letters to the Seven Churches: Attitudes, Eras or Both?
These very words of Christ clearly show He had a corporate body of human beings in mind, not just a spiritual organism. He used ekklesia, meaning an assembly of people, a group, and He confirmed this by using Hades, a pit into which dead bodies are cast. He thus shows His church to exist continuously as flesh-and-blood human beings.
It is clearly His will that all those having the Spirit of God be fellowshipping and serving together on a regular basis (Hebrews 10:25). A person may delude himself into thinking he can better serve Christ and prepare for the Kingdom of God free from all the pressures of a congregation, but the Word of God shows otherwise. He could even be condemning himself to the flames of the Lake of Fire by showing God that he is not pleased to associate with God's own sons and daughters, His holy people. The "independent Christian" must repent of his independence if he wants to glorify God, truly serve His people, and become spiritually mature.
John W. Ritenbaugh
In the Grip of Distrust
It is Peter who most frequently responds and answers for the group. A reader of the Gospels almost begins to picture, when Jesus asks a question, that the other disciples glance over to Peter to see whether he will respond. It is almost as if they defer to him. Though this is not specifically written in Scripture, it seems to be their thinking regarding him.
John W. Ritenbaugh
Unity (Part 2): God's Pattern of Leadership
Peter proclaims Jesus to be the Messiah, and Jesus speaks of building His church and being crucified and resurrected. This was a major step forward in the disciples' understanding, and it corrected the erroneous prophetic teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees. However, from the incident that occurs in verses 22-23, we can see that Peter—and probably the other disciples also—were not yet fully convinced of it.
Richard T. Ritenbaugh
Why the Transfiguration?
Did Christ Build the Church on Peter (Matthew 16:18)?
Notice a few particulars about this controversial verse:
1. Christ does not say that He is making Peter the head of His church.
2. The key to understanding this scripture lies in the correct translation of the Greek words here rendered "Peter" and "rock." The Greek word translated "Peter" is petros, meaning "pebble" or "small stone," while the word rendered "rock" is petra, meaning "big rock" or "huge boulder."
3. Christ says He would build His church on the boulder, not on Peter the pebble. Christ is the rock (I Corinthians 10:4). He is also the "chief cornerstone," upon which the church is built (Ephesians 2:20).
4. Although Peter is shown in a leadership position among the apostles throughout the gospels and Acts, the early church leaders did not function in a strict hierarchical manner. Read and study Acts 15:1-29. Here is a ministerial conference called to discuss a matter of doctrine causing division in the church (verse 6). Peter makes his point (verses 7-11), which is later adopted by the other apostles and elders (verse 22). But it is James, the physical brother of Jesus Christ and pastor of the Jerusalem church, who sums up the conference's decision (verses 13-19). This helps us to understand how the apostles (plural) form the foundation of the church with the prophets (Ephesians 2:20).
5. Peter was not infallible. Read Matthew 16:21-23, where Jesus has to rebuke Peter severely for a wrong attitude immediately after His statement about the "rock." In addition, the apostle Paul later corrects him publicly for returning to the Jewish practice of refusing to eat with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14).
From these proofs, it is easy to see that Jesus did not say He would build His church on Peter, a mere man, but on Himself, and because of that, the church would endure and prevail.
For the Perfecting of the Saints
Guard the Truth!
Preparing the Bride
The World, the Church and Laodiceanism
Where Is God's True Church Today?
Other Forerunner Commentary entries containing Matthew 16:18:
1 Peter 2:4-5