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What is the Church in the New Testament?

Julian Spriggs M.A.

In contrast to popular thinking that the church is an institution or a building, the New Testament consistently describes church as people with Jesus in their midst (Mt 18:20, Heb 2:12). This truth is also expressed through the image of the risen Jesus in the midst of the lampstands (Rev 1:13), representing the seven churches (Rev 1:20). The Greek 'ekklesia' means gathering, which is used either to describe either the worldwide body of Christ (Eph 4), or specific local congregations (Acts 13:1, Rev 2-3). Believers are saints (Eph 1:1), people set apart from the world to serve God as his servants.

In the gospels, only Matthew uses the word 'church'. Following Peter’s confession, when Jesus renamed Peter the rock, he used a play on words to say that he would build his church on the rock (Mt 16:16ff). Catholics claim that by this Jesus appointed Peter as the head of the church, and his successors as bishops of Rome (Popes). It is more likely that Jesus meant that the rock was Peter’s confession of Jesus as Messiah and Son of God, upon which the church was to be built, rather than Peter himself. The other passage is about the process of discipline when a member of the church sins (Mt 18:15ff).

The church is loved by God. A husband is called to love his wife in the same way that Christ loves the church (Eph 5:25). Paul described the Corinthian church as a virgin bride of Christ (2 Cor 11:2). John looked forward to the marriage supper of the lamb (Rev 19:7-9), when the bride will be ready for her bridegroom.

The doctrine of church is particularly developed by Paul, by which he means either local congregations, or smaller groups meeting in house churches (Rom 16:5), or the universal church. Of all his epistles, the book of Ephesians gives some of the richest teaching on the nature of the church, and the Pastoral Epistles give practical teaching for church leadership.

Just as Jesus prayed for the unity of believers (Jn 17:22), Paul also called for the unity of the church. He addressed disunity and factionalism in Corinth (1 Cor 1:10-12) and in Philippi (Phil 4:2), and declared the church as one body and one faith (Eph 4:4), which contains a diversity of gifted people (4:11), who are to work toward the unity of the faith (4:13)

One of Paul’s characteristic descriptions of the church is the temple, the dwelling place of God’s Spirit. He draws from the physical temple of the Old Testament, the place of the presence of God’s glory. God’s temple is holy and should not be destroyed by disunity (1 Cor 3:16). “We are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor 6:16), therefore, because it is holy, believers must separate themselves from all that is unclean (v17). The previously alienated Gentiles are now part of the household of God, his holy temple, and his dwelling place (Eph 2:19ff). Jesus is the cornerstone of this temple (v20, an allusion to Is 28:16), and the temple is built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets.

The church is also described as the household or family of God. God is the Father of all who believe, and fellow-believers are frequently called 'brothers' (eg. Phm 1), and even Jesus himself calls us his brothers (Heb 2:11). Gentile believers are no longer aliens of God, but the two groups have been reconciled both with God, and with each other to form one new humanity (Eph 2:15)

Paul uniquely describes the church as the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27), with Christ as its head (Col 1:18). The church is dependent on its head for development and growth (Col 2:19). The body is a unity, in which all parts need each other to function correctly (1 Cor 12:14-26). Within the unity of the body are different gifts (v8-11), and different ministries (v28). Because diversity can create disunity, believers are strongly called to love one another (1 Cor 13).

The church is also called to warfare against evil spiritual powers, bearing the armour of God (Eph 6:10ff), and is called to make known the wisdom of God to the rulers and authorities in heavenly places (Eph 3:10), particularly through the inclusion of previously alienated Gentiles.

Leadership of the church in the New Testament generally consisted of a group of elders (Acts 14:23, James 5:14, 1 Pet 5 and Tit 1:5ff, where they are also called bishops), who are called to model a life of good character and servant leadership. They are to teach true doctrine and model a godly lifestyle to the believers (1 Tim 1:12), as well as protecting the church from false teachers (Titus 1:9).

James uniquely uses the word 'synagogue', the Jewish place of meeting, to describe the church assembly (2:2). He addresses his letter to the twelve tribes of the Dispersion (1:1), using Jewish terms to describe the church.

Peter uses several images previously used as titles of Old Testament Israel to describe the church: a chosen race, a royal priesthood and a holy nation (1 Pet 2:9, cf. Ex 19:6). The believers are living stones built into a spiritual house (1 Pet 2:5). He calls elders to tend the flock of God (1 Pet 5:2), following the example of the good shepherd (John 10:11ff).

The book of Revelation uses a variety of inspiring images to describe the church. As with Paul, the believers are called saints (13:7), and they are a kingdom of priests (1:6). The church is the bride of Christ (21:9), invited to the marriage supper of the lamb (19:9), but is also described as a city, the holy city Jerusalem, where God dwells in glory (21:23), and where his people will see him face to face and worship him (22:3-4). The church is persecuted by the beast, when they refuse to worship it (13:7), but will be victorious if they remain faithful to Jesus.

The church is called to worship God, to edify and encourage believers (Heb 10:24f), to evangelise unbelievers, and initiate them into the church by baptism (Mt 28:18), also to prayer (1 Tim 2:1), the public reading of scripture (1 Tim 4:13), and to celebrate the Lord’s supper (1 Cor 11:23-26).

One continuing controversy is whether the church is the new Israel. Dispensationalists see two separate people of God, the Jews and the Church. They say that the church will raptured before God continues his dealing with the Jews during the tribulation, the seventieth week of Daniel. Others claim that because the apostles regularly used titles of Israel to describe the church, the church replaces Israel as the true people of God.

Another controversy is over the role of women in the church, whether leadership and the teaching ministry are fully open to women. The argument comes from some statements of Paul, like women remaining silent in church (1 Cor 14:34f), and women not teaching or having authority over men (1 Tim 2:12). The exegetical question is whether these statements were only addressing local situations, or whether they should be universally applied. It is clear that women did have a prominent role in the early church, praying and prophesying (1 Cor 11:5), and functioning in leadership (Rom 16:1), and in teaching (Acts 18:26).

P.T. O’Brien: Church, in Dictionary of Paul and his Letters. IVP 1993
E.J. Forrester, G.W. Bromiley. Church, Church Government, in International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (ISBE). ed. GW Bromiley. Eerdmans 1986
D. Guthrie. New Testament Theology. IVP 1981.
G.E. Ladd. A Theology of the New Testament. Eerdmans 1974.
L. Morris. New Testament Theology. Zondervan 1986. Page 317.
R.L. Omanson. Church, The, in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology. ed. W.A. Elwell. Baker 1984.
D.W.B. Robinson Church, in Illustrated Bible Dictionary. ed. JD Douglas. IVP 1986

The Bible

Pages which look at issues relevant to the whole Bible, such as the Canon of Scripture, as well as doctrinal and theological issues. There are also pages about the Apocrypha, Pseudepigrapha and 'lost books' of the Old Testament.

Also included are lists of the quotations of the OT in the NT, and passages of the OT quoted in the NT.

Why These 66 Books?
Books in the Hebrew Scriptures
Quotations in NT From OT
OT Passages Quoted in NT
History of the English Bible
Twelve Books of the Apocrypha
The Pseudepigrapha - False Writings
Lost Books Referenced in OT

Old Testament Overview

This is a series of six pages which give a historical overview through the Old Testament and the inter-testamental period, showing where each OT book fits into the history of Israel.

OT 1: Creation and Patriarchs
OT 2: Exodus and Wilderness
OT 3: Conquest and Monarchy
OT 4: Divided kingdom and Exile
OT 5: Return from Exile
OT 6: 400 Silent Years

New Testament Overview

This is a series of five pages which give a historical overview through the New Testament, focusing on the Ministry of Jesus, Paul's missionary journeys, and the later first century. Again, it shows where each book of the NT fits into the history of the first century.

NT 1: Life and Ministry of Jesus
NT 2: Birth of the Church
NT 3: Paul's Missionary Journeys
NT 4: Paul's Imprisonment
NT 5: John and Later NT

Introductions to Old Testament Books

This is an almost complete collection of introductions to each of the books in the Old Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Genesis Exodus Leviticus
Numbers Deuteronomy

Joshua Judges Ruth
1 & 2 Samuel 1 & 2 Kings Chronicles
Ezra & Nehemiah Esther

Job Psalms Proverbs

Isaiah Jeremiah Lamentations
Ezekiel Daniel

Hosea Joel Amos
Obadiah Jonah Micah
Nahum Habakkuk Zephaniah
Haggai Zechariah Malachi

Introductions to New Testament Books

This is a collection of introductions to each of the 27 books in the New Testament. Each contains information about the authorship, date, historical setting and main themes of the book.

Matthew's Gospel Mark's Gospel Luke's Gospel
John's Gospel

Book of Acts

Romans 1 Corinthians 2 Corinthians
Galatians Ephesians Philippians
Colossians 1 & 2 Thessalonians 1 Timothy
2 Timothy Titus Philemon

Hebrews James 1 Peter
2 Peter 1 John 2 & 3 John


Old Testament History

Information about the different nations surrounding Israel, and other articles concerning Old Testament history and the inter-testamental period.

Canaanite Religion
Israel's Enemies During the Conquest
Syria / Aram
The Assyrian Empire
Babylon and its History
The Persian Empire
The Greek Empire
The 400 Silent Years
The Ptolemies and Seleucids
Antiochus IV - Epiphanes

Old Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for OT studies. These include a list of the people named in the OT and confirmed by archaeology. There are also pages to convert the different units of measure in the OT, such as the talent, cubit and ephah into modern units.

More theological topics include warfare in the ancient world, the Holy Spirit in the OT, and types of Jesus in the OT.

OT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Jewish Calendar
The Importance of Paradox
Talent Converter (weights)
Cubit Converter (lengths)
OT People Search
Ephah Converter (volumes)
Holy War in the Ancient World
The Holy Spirit in the OT
Types of Jesus in the OT

Studies in the Pentateuch (Gen - Deut)

A series of articles covering studies in the five books of Moses. Studies in the Book of Genesis look at the historical nature of the early chapters of Genesis, the Tower of Babel and the Table of the Nations.

There are also pages about covenants, the sacrifices and offerings, the Jewish festivals and the tabernacle, as well as the issue of tithing.

Are chapters 1-11 of Genesis historical?
Chronology of the Flood
Genealogies of the Patriarchs
Table of the Nations (Gen 10)
Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9)

Authorship of the Pentateuch
Chronology of the Wilderness Years
Names of God in the OT
Covenants in the OT
The Ten Commandments
The Tabernacle and its Theology
Sacrifices and Offerings
The Jewish Festivals
Balaam and Balak
Highlights from Deuteronomy
Overview of Deuteronomy

Studies in the Old Testament History Books (Josh - Esther)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the history books. These include a list of the dates of the kings of Israel and Judah, a summary of the kings of the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and studies of Solomon, Jeroboam and Josiah.

There are also pages describing some of the historical events of the period, including the Syro-Ephraimite War, and the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC.

Dates of the Kings of Judah and Israel
King Solomon
The Kings of Israel
King Jeroboam I of Israel
The Syro-Ephraimite War (735 BC)
Sennacherib's Invasion of Judah (701 BC)
King Josiah of Judah
Differences Between Kings and Chronicles
Chronology of the post-exilic period

Studies in the Old Testament Prophets (Is - Mal)

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the OT prophets. These include a page looking at the way the prophets look ahead into their future, a page looking at the question of whether Satan is a fallen angel, and a page studying the seventy weeks of Daniel.

There are also a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of two of the books:
Isaiah (13 pages) and Daniel (10 pages).

Prophets and the Future
The Call of Jeremiah (Jer 1)
The Fall of Satan? (Is 14, Ezek 28)
Daniel Commentary (10 pages)
Isaiah Commentary (13 pages)
Formation of the Book of Jeremiah

Daniel's Seventy Weeks (Dan 9:24-27)

New Testament Studies

A series of articles covering more general topics for NT studies. These include a list of the people in the NT confirmed by archaeology.

More theological topics include the Kingdom of God and the Coming of Christ.

NT People Confirmed by Archaeology
The Kingdom of God / Heaven
Parousia (Coming of Christ)
The Importance of Paradox

Studies in the Four Gospels (Matt - John)

A series of articles covering various studies in the four gospels. These include a list of the unique passages in each of the Synoptic Gospels and helpful information about the parables and how to interpret them.

Some articles look at the life and ministry of Jesus, including his genealogy, birth narratives, transfiguration, the triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and the seating arrangements at the Last Supper.

More theological topics include the teaching about the Holy Spirit as the Paraclete and whether John the Baptist fulfilled the predictions of the coming of Elijah.

Unique Passages in the Synoptic Gospels
The SynopticProblem
Genealogy of Jesus (Matt 1)
Birth Narratives of Jesus
Understanding the Parables
Peter's Confession and the Transfiguration
Was John the Baptist Elijah?
The Triumphal Entry
The Olivet Discourse (Mark 13)
Important themes in John's Gospel
John's Gospel Prologue (John 1)
Jesus Fulfilling Jewish Festivals
Reclining at Table at the Last Supper
The Holy Spirit as the Paraclete

Studies in the Book of Acts and the New Testament Letters

A series of articles covering various studies in the Book of Acts and the Letters, including Paul's letters. These include a page studying the messages given by the apostles in the Book of Acts, and the information about the financial collection that Paul made during his third missionary journey. More theological topics include Paul's teaching on Jesus as the last Adam, and descriptions of the church such as the body of Christ and the temple, as well as a look at redemption and the issue of fallen angels.

There are a series of pages giving a commentary through the text of five of the books:
Romans (7 pages), 1 Corinthians (7 pages), Galatians (3 pages), Philemon (1 page) and Hebrews (7 pages)

Apostolic Messages in the Book of Acts
Paul and His Apostleship
Collection for the Saints
The Church Described as a Temple
Church as the Body of Christ
Jesus as the Last Adam
Food Offered to Idols
Paul's Teaching on Headcoverings
Who are the Fallen Angels
The Meaning of Redemption
What is the Church?
Paul and the Greek Games

Romans Commentary (7 pages)

1 Corinthians Commentary (7 pages)

Galatians Commentary (3 pages)

Philemon Commentary (1 page)

Hebrews Commentary (7 pages)

Studies in the Book of Revelation

Articles containing studies and helpful information for the study of the Book of Revelation and topics concerning Eschatology (the study of end-times).

These include a description of the structure of the book, a comparison and contrast between the good and evil characters in the book and a list of the many allusions to the OT. For the seven churches, there is a page which gives links to their location on Google maps.

There is a page studying the important theme of Jesus as the Lamb, which forms the central theological truth of the book. There are pages looking at the major views of the Millennium, as well as the rapture and tribulation, as well as a list of dates of the second coming that have been mistakenly predicted through history.

There is also a series of ten pages giving a detailed commentry through the text of the Book of Revelation.

Introduction to the Book of Revelation
Characters Introduced in the Book
Structure of Revelation
List of Allusions to OT
The Description of Jesus as the Lamb
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
The Nero Redivius Myth
The Millennium (1000 years)
The Rapture and the Tribulation
Different Approaches to Revelation
Predicted Dates of the Second Coming

Revelation Commentary (10 pages)

How to do Inductive Bible Study

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study the Bible inductively, by asking a series of simple questions. There are lists of observation and interpretation questions, as well as information about the structure and historical background of biblical books, as well as a list of the different types of figures of speech used in the Bible. There is also a page giving helpful tips on how to apply the Scriptures personally.

How to Study the Bible Inductively
I. The Inductive Study Method
II. Observation Questions
III. Interpretation Questions
IV. Structure of Books
V. Determining the Historical background
VI. Identifying Figures of Speech
VII. Personal Application
VIII. Text Layout

Types of Literature in the Bible

These are a series of pages giving practical help showing how to study each of the different types of book in the Bible by appreciating the type of literature being used. These include historical narrative, law, wisdom, prophets, Gospels, Acts, letters and Revelation.

It is most important that when reading the Bible we are taking note of the type of literature we are reading. Each type needs to be considered and interpreted differently as they have different purposes.

How to Understand OT Narratives
How to Understand OT Law
Hebrew Poetry
OT Wisdom Literature
Understanding the OT Prophets
The Four Gospels
The Parables of Jesus
The Book of Acts
How to Understand the NT Letters
Studying End Times (Eschatology)
The Book of Revelation

Geography and Archaeology

These are a series of pages giving geographical and archaeological information relevant to the study of the Bible. There is a page where you can search for a particular geographical location and locate it on Google maps, as well as viewing photographs on other sites.

There are also pages with photographs from Ephesus and Corinth.

Search for Geographical Locations
Major Archaeological Sites in Israel
Archaeological Sites in Assyria, Babylon and Persia
Virtual Paul's Missionary Journeys
Virtual Seven Churches of Revelation
Photos of the City of Corinth
Photos of the City of Ephesus

Biblical Archaeology in Museums around the world

A page with a facility to search for artifacts held in museums around the world which have a connection with the Bible. These give information about each artifact, as well as links to the museum's collection website where available showing high resolution photographs of the artifact.

There is also page of photographs from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem of important artifacts.

Search Museums for Biblical Archaeology
Israel Museum Photos

Difficult Theological and Ethical Questions

These are a series of pages looking at some of the more difficult questions of Christian theology, including war, suffering, disappointment and what happens to those who have never heard the Gospel.

Christian Ethics
Never Heard the Gospel
Is there Ever a Just War?
Why Does God Allow Suffering
Handling Disappointment

How to Preach

These are a series of pages giving a practical step-by-step explanation of the process of preparing a message for preaching, and how to lead a small group Bible study.

What is Preaching?
I. Two Approaches to Preaching
II. Study a Passage for Preaching
III. Creating a Message Outline
IV. Making Preaching Relevant
V. Presentation and Public Speaking
VI. Preaching Feedback and Critique
Leading a Small Group Bible Study

Information for SBS staff members

Two pages particularly relevant for people serving as staff on the School of Biblical Studies (SBS) in YWAM. One gives helpful instruction about how to prepare to teach on a book in the SBS. The other gives a list of recommended topics which can be taught about for each book of the Bible.

Teaching on SBS Book Topics for SBS