Basilica of Sts. Peter & Paul (Chattanooga, Tennessee) - stained glass, Matthew 16 verses 18 & 19 by Nheyob, licensed under https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0/
I participate in a Christian podcasters Facebook group. As I was reading through an argument some were having, I wanted to respond (but didn't) when a few of them went down a path of saying things like:
"Jesus doesn't care about religion."
"The church doesn't matter. It's all about Jesus."
Instead, I'll write my response here. This view is nonsense, not Biblical, and even bordering on blasphemy. This kind of thinking is actually disruptive to our seven-day practical faith, which is why I'm answering within this particular blog.
Let's start with one of the most basic facts: Jesus formed the Christian church. It was his clear intent. In fact, the first reference to "church" in the Bible is when Jesus utters the word in this passage from Matthew 16:15-19.
“But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?”
Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”
Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be[d] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.”
From Jesus' words, we can clearly understand that (a) he intended to form a church (b) Peter would lead it (c) there will forever be a church; it will not be overcome.
What kind of church was Jesus forming? One with a brave new concept, where Jews and non-Jews, or gentiles, would come together under Jesus's auspices. Jesus reaching out to the gentiles is prophesied early in his life in two notable ways.
Simeon prophesied the infant Jesus' leading role with both gentiles and Jews in Luke 2:25-32.
Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah. Moved by the Spirit, he went into the temple courts. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying:
“Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.”
Later, the Magi or wise men were gentiles who came to bow down before the young child Jesus to worship him, foreshadowing that gentiles would eventually be part of the worship experience.
Christ's intention to bring gentiles into Jesus's church is proven in the Great Commission, Matthew 28: 18-20.
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
"Make disciples of all nations" means everybody, including the gentiles. Jesus then promises that he will remain with this band of disciples, the original organizers and leaders of the fledgling church, as well as their successors, always and to the very end of the age.
To sum up what we've learned from the Bible so far, Jesus was intentional about forming a new church combining Jews and gentiles, and his Holy Spirit remains present with that church even today.
Speaking of the Holy Spirit, undoubtedly the Holy Spirit was THE key formative driver of the early church. The resurrected Christ had told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for "the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about," referring to the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit blew like a wind through the disciples, who began proclaiming Christ in every language represented where they were. Peter gave the first sermon, three thousand people accepted the gospel and were baptized, and the church was off and running.
It's impossible to read the Acts of the Apostles and not see the acts of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is constantly inspiring, informing, and implementing on behalf of the apostles.
This is where I find the stance that religion through the church is irrelevant to be borderline blasphemous. It disrespects the work and intent of the Holy Spirit! In Matthew 12:31-32, Jesus said there was one unforgivable sin.
And so I tell you, every kind of sin and slander can be forgiven, but blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come.
So let's recognize that the Holy Spirit continues to inspire and bless churches. And also works to improve them.
Clearly, the New Testament shows us the growth and course correction of churches through the life and work of the apostle Paul and other apostles. Paul even describes the church as the bride of Christ, for whom he sacrificed himself. Ephesians 5: 25-27 reads:
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.
But what about after those early days? Does Jesus still care about the church he formed?
The answer is yes. We get a glimpse in Revelation, chapters two and three, when Jesus dictates letters to seven churches. Generally speaking, he's not happy with them. Jesus corrects their courses. But he doesn't tell any of them to stop being a church. He doesn't say that the church idea needs to be abandoned.
I imagine that Jesus would write some stern letters to certain churches today. Perhaps to all churches, which should expect course correction and refinement over time. The Holy Spirit got the church on its feet but has never left. Perhaps our own willfulness has gotten in the way of hearing the Spirit's message. Undoubtedly the church as an institution is imperfect, and individual denominations and churches require their own unique renovations. But the church remains the instrument through which Jesus intends to reach people and to form a community basis, as we see so vividly in Acts.
I hope this blog, using the authority of scripture, convinces you that Jesus IS about religion, IS about church. But what does this mean for your church attendance? What does it mean for your seven-day practical faith? I'll write on those topics next Friday in my ensuing blog post.
Please check back here Monday for a big announcement about my new book, "From Comfort Zone to Trust Zone: How Jesus Urges Us to Take Leaps of Faith for His Kingdom.