When men speak of the Church they usually have in mind the mass of religious systems professing the Christian name, including, for example, the Church of Rome, the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Anglican, Lutheran, Presbyterian Churches, the Congregational, Baptist, Methodist, and many other bodies and fellowships. These systems and sects which compose Christendom are not however the Church described in the New Testament. Some contain obviously a very large proportion of persons who are Christian in name only, and many who deny the very foundations of the Christian faith. As foretold by the apostles, false teachers have entered the Christian profession, and they have gained many followers. In 2 Timothy 2. 19 the apostle Paul says: “The Lord knoweth them that are his”, implying that man may not know. The Lord Himself, in the parable of the wheat and tares, said that among the wheat (whom He described as the children of the kingdom), the enemy would sow tares (whom He described as the children of the wicked one). He speaks of the field in which the wheat and tares are sown as the world, not as the Church. This is an important distinction which is often overlooked. The Church universal according to the New Testament is not a mixture of wheat and tares but Christ’s own building, and it is unthinkable that He would build any spurious material into His Church. In Matthew 16. 18 we read: “upon this rock (referring to Peter’s confession of Himself as the Christ, the Son of the Living God) I will build my church”. Peter’s confession was based on a supernatural revelation by God, the Father. This was the rock. The claim of the Roman Catholic Church that the Lord was proposing to build His Church on Peter is utterly repugnant to the whole teaching of Scripture. Such a notion was not held by the early Church. The collateral idea that Peter was the first pope is also without historical foundation.
It may be well to point out at this stage that much is said about local churches but we shall deal with this later. Here we are dealing with the Church in its complete, age-long, or “universal” aspect, as composed only of born-again persons who have received the Holy Spirit. Such persons Peter calls living stones. All others are dead in trespasses and sins, whatever their religious or ecclesiastical profession may be.
With the exception of three references by Paul to his having persecuted the Church, most of the references to the Church “universal” are found in the Epistles to the Ephesians and Colossians. These references we now deal with. In Ephesians I. 22-23 Christ is presented in all His glory as Head over all things, and the Church is said to be His body, the fulness (the counterpart or complement) of Him who fills all in all. It is impossible to conceive any greater role for the Church than this. He is the Head and the Church is His body. The body is the means of expression, and in the coming day of glory Christ will express Himself through the Church, His body. She is moreover His complement. As Adam, head over the physical creation, needed the woman as his complement, so it has pleased God in His wisdom to give Christ a complement – the Church, composed of all those who, through the ages, have been redeemed, and baptised by the Holy Spirit into one body. As Paul says in Ephesians 5. 32, “This is a great mystery’. The same truth is presented in Revelation 21. 9 where the angel tells John “I will show thee the bride, the Lamb’s wife” and proceeds to show him the holy city in which the glory of God shines in the coming age of glory. Such is the divine presentation of the true Church. The judgment of the false church is described in Revelation 17. The true Church is invisible as a united whole today. Many of those who compose it are with Christ and the members on earth are hidden in the mass of Christendom. However, while hidden in her completeness from human eyes, the true Church is known and recognised in heaven and even now through her is perceived by angelic beings the all-various wisdom of God. They see God at work in redemption. They witness joy in their presence when a sinner repents. They see God’s ways as the living stones are formed for the great building which Christ is erecting–His Church, Eph. 3. 10.
In Ephesians 5 the apostle uses the relationship of husband and wife – the closest and most intimate relationship God has created – to illustrate the relationship of Christ and the Church. “Christ loved the church”, he writes, “and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendour, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish”, w. 25-27 r.s.v. Christ foresaw the Church in all her beauty as His bride-to-be when He gave Himself up for her in order to redeem those who were to form it. Doubtless this was in His mind when, in parable, He spoke of the merchantman seeking goodly pearls, who having found one pearl of great price, sold all He had to secure it. (A common misinterpretation of that parable makes Christ Himself the pearl. Sinners however cannot be compared to a merchantman seeking goodly pearls. Unregenerate men seek the evil things of this world. The prodigal son was not seeking goodly pearls when he wasted his substance in riotous living).
In Colossians, which brings before us the glory of Christ as the One by whom and for whom all things were created, it states that one of His glories is that He is the Head of the Church, 1. 18, and the Church is again said to be His body in 1. 24.
In Hebrews 12. 23 the Church is described as the Church of the first-born ones whose names are written in heaven. First-born here refers to pre-eminence, not order of time. The Church is composed of Christ’s brethren. There can be no higher rank than this on earth or in heaven. Hence they are the Church of first-born ones.
These Scriptures demonstrate clearly the nature, status and destiny of the Church “universal” as presented in Scripture, and clearly distinguish it from the mass of sects which in men’s eyes is the Church. It is hidden today, but it will be displayed in glory with Christ in that day described in Revelation 19. 6-7: “And I heard as it were the voice of a great multitude, and as the voice of many waters, and as the voice of mighty thunderings, saying, Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us be glad and rejoice, and give honour to him: for the marriage of the Lamb is come, and his wife hath made herself ready".