In Ephesians 3. 10 Paul described the church as exhibiting to principalities and powers in heavenly places “the manifold wisdom of God”. The Greek word polupoikilos means “very manifold”. The church is so variously portrayed in the New Testament, in the number of metaphors employed. This is a measure of the “very manifold” nature of that which displays God’s wisdom. We propose, in this series of papers, to examine these figures of speech so used.
The first pronouncement on the subject of the church was made by Christ Himself. By the law of first mention, His embryonic teaching gives a key to its understanding. In reply to Peter’s confession “Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God”, Matt. 16. 16, the Lord replied, “upon this rock I will build my church”, v.18. The building of the church was then yet future—“I will build”; in fact it was not begun until Pentecost, when “about three thousand souls” were added to the original number of disciples who had remained at Jerusalem to await the coming of the Holy Spirit; with them they formed the nucleus of “the church which was at Jerusalem”, Acts 8. 1.
Despite prevalent misconceptions that the church is an actual building intended for “divine service”, it is clear that the Lord’s teaching was meant to be metaphorically understood. In its scriptural use, the word church (ekklesia—that which is called out) never implies a building, but always an assembly or congregation of people, and that not always of a “religious” nature; see Acts 19. 32, 39, 41, where it is used of a tumultuous worldly crowd. In 7. 38 it is used to describe the congregation of Israel in the desert. But normally it is used to describe the Universal Church, Matt. 16. 18, or local communities of Christians owning allegiance to the Lord Jesus Christ, Rev. 1. 4.
In the Lord’s teaching in Matthew 16, there is a play upon words in the Greek. “Peter” (Petros’) means a stone, John 1. 42; “rock” (petra) means a rock. The question is, whom does the rock represent—Christ or Peter? It is clear that Peter never thought that Christ meant that he, Peter, was the rock on which Christ would build His church, for Peter later wrote of Christ as “a living stone … chosen of God” upon which believers, “as living stones, are built up a spiritual house”, 1 Pet. 2. 4, 5 R.V. The “rock” of which Christ spoke was clearly Himself, the rock foundation on which the church is built, the rock of His own divine personality, as “the Christ, the Son of the living God”; cf. 1 Cor. 3. 11. The Lord also spoke of it as “my church”, although elsewhere we read of “the church of the living God”, 1 Tim. 3. 15. There is no dichotomy between the two; the church is God’s gift to Christ. Because it belongs to Christ, and since He has “the keys of death and Hades”, Rev. 1. 18 R.V., the church, like Himself, is deathless and therefore “the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” R.V.
In His basic teaching, the Lord did not particularize on the nature of the building; that was left to Paul in particular and to Peter to fill out. Peter wrote of it as “a spiritual house”, partaking of the preciousness or honour pertaining to the “living stone” on which it was founded, 1 Pet. 2. 4, 7, where “spiritual sacrifices” would be offered up, but again without precisely defining its nature, other than its “religious” purpose. It fell to Paul to make this clear.
Agreeing with Peter, who called it a “house” (oikos) Paul wrote of it as “the household (oikeios—belonging to the house) of God”, Eph. 2. 19, of which Christ is “the chief corner stone; in whom all the building fitly framed together groweth into an holy temple in the Lord”, vv. 20, 21. The “building” of which Christ spoke is therefore seen to be a “temple” (naos), the inner sanctuary, corresponding in the Old Testament to the “holy of holies” in both tabernacle and temple. In writing of the local “church of God which is at Corinth”, 1 Cor. 1. 2, Paul used the same thought, “ye are the temple (naos) of God … the temple of God is holy, which temple ye are”, 1 Cor. 3. 16, 17. To the church at Ephesus, Paul wrote, “ye are also builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit”, Eph. 2. 22. God “dwelt” among them; cf. 2 Cor. 6. 16. When Solomon had built his temple, in his dedicatory prayer he said, “I have surely built thee an house to dwell in, a settled place for thee to abide in forever”, 1 Kings 8. 13. But Solomon doubted if God would “indeed dwell on the earth” since “the heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee; how much less this house that I have builded?” v.27.
A thousand years later, Stephen, in his defence before the Sanhedrin, referred to this, “Solomon built him an house. Howbeit the most High dwell-eth not in temples made with hands; as saith the prophet (see Isa. 66. 1), Heaven is my throne, and earth is my footstool: what house will ye build me? saith the Lord”, Acts 7. 47-49. Although it was “exceeding magnificat”, 1 Chron. 22. 5, what Solomon doubted of the temple, and Stephen confirmed, has been realized in the church; it is “a spiritual house”, “a holy temple in the Lord”, “a habitation of God through the Spirit”.
So far we have thought of the Lord building His church as composed of “living stones … built up a spiritual house”. In Ephesians 2. 22 Paul followed the same idea, “ye also are builded together for an habitation of God through the Spirit”. In his application of the metaphor of building to the local church at Corinth, Paul gave it a different emphasis. He wrote to the believers “ye are God’s building”, 1 Cor. 3. 9, in which Paul saw himself and Apollos as “labourers together with God”. “As a wise masterbuilder (Paul had) laid the foundation”, v. 10, that is, by his preaching at Corinth, which had resulted in the formation of the church. “Another” (Apollos) was building thereupon. The foundation laid by Paul was adequate, “other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ”, v.ll. But others were also building on Paul’s foundation: “let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon”. Some were doubtless building worthily, but it would seem that others were not. Using bad materials or allowing bad workmanship would “defile (marg., corrupt) the temple of God”, v.17. Its “holy” nature required the use both of worthy materials and workmanship.
The materials listed in verse 12 are building materials; “gold, silver, precious stones” were all used in Solomon’s temple, “Wood, hay, stubble” are still used in various forms in contemporary building. It is not only a question of “how”, i.e. the manner, but of “what sort”, i.e. the matter, whether of the former or latter materials. Modern buildings are required to be constructed of fire-resisting materials. Some materials are more inflammable than others; “wood, hay, stubble” are particularly vulnerable to fire. “The day” (of Christ, i.e. the judgment seat) will provide such a test, “because it shall be revealed by fire; and the fire shall try every man’s work of what sort it is”, v.13. By this test, the kind of materials used in building “the temple of God” will be “made manifest”. What endures the fire will be rewarded, “If any man’s work abide which he hath built thereupon, he shall receive a reward”, v.14. What is destroyed by the fire will be lost, “If any man’s work shall be burned, he shall suffer loss”, v.15, but without prejudice to salvation—“he himself shall be saved; yet so as by fire”. In Sodom’s conflagration Lot lost everything for which he had laboured, but he himself escaped “yet so as by fire”. The “fire”, as also the materials, are symbolic. When John saw the glorified Lord on Patmos, “his eyes were as a flame of fire”, Rev. 1. 14; cf. Heb. 4. 13. All that savours of bad workmanship—“how” and bad materials—will be destroyed; only what is good of both will “abide”, with consequent “loss” or “reward”.
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