Identifying the True Church and Its Foundation
IF WE want to live eternally in God’s new system we must acknowledge the true church and its foundation. With reference to them, Jesus said: “Upon this rock I will build my Church.” (Matt. 16:18, Dy) What is this church and what is the rock or foundation upon which it is built? The Bible provides us with the right answers.
While many persons speak of the buildings in which people meet for worship as “churches,” did you know that the Bible never does? In the Bible the word “church” always refers to people, actually to an assembly or congregation of persons. For example, the Christian apostle Paul addressed a letter preserved in the Holy Bible “to Philemon, our beloved, . . . and to the church which is in thy house.”—Philem. 1, 2, Dy.
The Greek word ek·kle·siʹa, which is translated “church” or “congregation” in the Bible, literally means “that which is called out.” It refers to a group of persons called out from among others for a particular purpose; but it is used as the equivalent of the Hebrew word qahalʹ, meaning “congregation” or “assembly.”
THE MEMBERS OF THE TRUE CHURCH
The true church or congregation is compared to a virgin girl engaged to Christ, because as a group the members of the true church are to be closely united to Christ, as a wife is to her husband. Writing to certain members of the church, the apostle Paul said: “I personally promised you in marriage to one husband that I might present you as a chaste virgin to the Christ.” (2 Cor. 11:2; see also Revelation 21:2, 9, 10.) So the true church is a clean congregation, free from worldly corruption and devoted to its Head, Jesus Christ.
This true church is also likened to a human body, because it has many members, but only one head, just as a human body has. The inspired Scriptures, at Ephesians 1:22, 23 in the Catholic Douay version of the Bible, tell us that God made Christ “head over all the church, which is his body.”
Could any one of us decide to “join” this body or church simply by getting one’s name placed on some membership roll here on earth? No; as Hebrews 12:23 (Dy) explains, this is the “church of the firstborn who are written in the heavens.” God is the one who selects the members. As the Bible explains: “Now God has set the members in the body, each one of them, just as he pleased.” (1 Cor. 12:18) These are the ones who will be with Christ in heaven. And Jesus revealed that, far from including all who profess to be Christians, they are limited in number to just 144,000.—Rev. 14:1-3; Luke 12:32.
They are, indeed, a group of persons called out from spiritual darkness for a special purpose. While here on earth they boldly “declare abroad the excellencies” of the Most High God, who called them out of darkness into his wonderful light. (1 Pet. 2:9) And, after their resurrection, they will have the grand privilege of ruling with Christ in his heavenly kingdom.—Luke 22:28-30.
The first members of this true church were all Jews (as were Jesus and his apostles) or circumcised Jewish converts. At Pentecost of 33 C.E.—just ten days after Jesus had ascended to heaven and opened the way for others to follow him in due time—Jehovah indicated his selection of these members through the pouring out of holy spirit. Their receiving of the spirit on that occasion bore witness to them that they were now God’s spiritual sons and heirs of the kingdom with Christ.—Acts 2:1-4, 16-21, 33; Rom. 8:16, 17.
However, the membership of the true church did not remain all Jewish. Three and a half years after Jesus’ death the way was opened for Gentiles or non-Jews to be included. The first uncircumcised Gentile members of the Christian church were an Italian army officer and his household. (Acts 10:30-33, 44; Rom. 9:23, 24) So, in course of time, the true church came to have international membership.
THE FOUNDATION OF THE TRUE CHURCH
Who is the foundation of the true church? Jesus Christ made clear that he himself is that foundation. He applied to himself the prophecy of Psalm 118:22, saying: “The stone that the builders rejected is the one that has become the chief cornerstone.”—Matt. 21:42-44.
The apostle Paul adds his testimony that Jesus is the “chief corner stone,” writing to Christians at Ephesus: “You are fellow citizens with the saints and the domestics of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.” (Eph. 2:19, 20, Dy) The apostle was very definite about it, saying again: “For other foundation no man can lay, but that which is laid: which is Christ Jesus.”—1 Cor. 3:11, Dy.
There could be no finer and surer foundation for the true church than Christ Jesus, could there? It is his own perfect human life given as a ransom that makes possible this divine arrangement. Yet, how can we harmonize this testimony by Jesus and the apostle Paul with what Jesus stated to Peter at Matthew 16:18? We may be sure that there is no contradiction.
“UPON THIS ROCK I WILL BUILD MY CHURCH”
Peter had just acknowledged Jesus to be the Christ (or, the Messiah), the Son of the living God. Jesus then said: “I say to thee: That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” (Matt. 16:18, Dy) Some understand these words to mean that Jesus’ church is built on Peter as the foundation. This is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church. But it is of interest to note that Archbishop Kenrick, in the book An Inside View of the Vatican Council (1870), shows that of at least eighty-six early church “fathers,” only seventeen understood Jesus’ reference to the “rock” as applying to Peter. Were you aware of this?
Consider, for example, the view of Augustine (354-430 C.E.), usually referred to as “Saint Augustine.” Though at one time he viewed Peter as the “rock,” in later life Augustine restated his position, saying in his Retractationes: “I have since frequently explained the words of our Lord: ‘Thou art Peter and upon this rock I will build my Church,’ to the effect that they should be understood as referring to him whom Peter confessed when he said: ‘Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God,’ . . . For what was said to [Peter] was not ‘Thou art the rock,’ but ‘Thou art Peter.’ But the rock was Christ.”
But of far more importance—how did Peter himself understand Jesus’ words? Concerning the Lord Jesus, Peter said: “Unto whom coming, as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men but chosen and made honourable by God: Be you also as living stones built up, a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. Wherefore it is said in the scripture: Behold, I lay in Sion a chief corner stone, elect, precious. And he that shall believe in him shall not be confounded. To you therefore that believe, he is honour: but to them that believe not, the stone which the builders rejected, the same is made the head of the corner: and a stone of stumbling and a rock of scandal, to them who stumble at the word.”—1 Pet. 2:4-8, Dy.
These words of Peter show that he, like the apostle Paul, understood Jesus to be the “chief corner stone,” the “rock” on which the church is built. Peter is just one of the 144,000 “living stones” making up the true church.
Peter enjoyed fine privileges as an apostle of Jesus Christ, it is true. But nowhere does he indicate that he thought he was the chief of the apostles. Nor do we read anywhere that the other apostles and disciples recognized Peter as a “pope” and gave him honor as such. In fact, when the apostles and older men met at Jerusalem to decide a question of importance to the church, it was the disciple James. not Peter, who presided over the meeting and expressed the final decision.—Acts 15:6-20.
It is clear, too, that Peter was not infallible. On one occasion the apostle Paul found it necessary to reprove Peter (Cephas) publicly for having taken a course not in keeping with true Christian faith. The fact that Peter was wrong on this matter involving faith and morals and also that Paul felt free to correct him publicly shows that Peter was not looked to as an “infallible” head of the apostles or of the early church. (Gal. 2:11-14) In the true church there is only one Head, Jesus Christ, who, since his resurrection, is “alive forever,” and so needs no successors.—Heb. 7:23-25.
A UNITED CHURCH
Jesus, the Head, does not split up the body of his congregation into a clergy class and a laity class of the “common people.” He says to his followers: “Do not you be called Rabbi, for one is your teacher, whereas all you are brothers. Moreover, do not call anyone your father on earth, for one is your Father, the heavenly One. Neither be called ‘leaders,’ for your Leader is one, the Christ.”—Matt. 23:8-10.
So Jesus shows that there is no division among those who make up the true church. All are brothers; there are no class distinctions. Is that the case of any religious group with which you may be associated? Jesus did arrange, however, for men to take the lead in the Christian congregation, to serve the spiritual needs of their brothers and organize the work of preaching the good news. He said such ones were not to “lord it over” their brothers but were to be like slaves or servants to them. (Matt. 20:25-28) Is that true of the clergymen you know?
To fit the Bible’s description of the true church, those who make it up must be united in their worship. In this regard the apostle Paul wrote: “I exhort you, brothers, through the name of our Lord Jesus Christ that you should all speak in agreement, and that there should not be divisions among you, but that you may be fitly united in the same mind and in the same line of thought.” (1 Cor. 1:10) So we cannot Scripturally expect to find the members of the true church scattered among all the conflicting religions of Christendom. They must be gathered together in just one congregation. As Ephesians 4:4, 5 says of them: “One body there is, . . . one Lord, one faith.” It is vital for us to know what that “one faith” is.
APPRECIATION OF THE TRUE CHURCH AND ITS FOUNDATION
The members of the true church under Christ their head are said to become “Abraham’s seed, heirs with reference to a promise.” (Gal. 3:29) This promise is that all others of obedient mankind will bless themselves through Christ and his congregation. (Gen. 22:18) The Bible foretold that, at the time of the establishment of Christ’s kingdom, there would be only a remnant of these children of the “Jerusalem above,” God’s heavenly organization, left on earth. (Gal. 4:26; Rev. 12:10, 17) Jesus described these members of his church on earth as a “faithful and discreet slave.” And he said that such ones who were found faithfully serving at the time of his coming to his judgment work would be appointed “over all his belongings,” that is, over all the earthly interests of Christ’s kingdom. They would take the lead in the preaching of the good news of the established Kingdom to all the nations in the “time of the end.”—Matt. 24:14, 45-47; 25:19-23.
All those today who hope to gain eternal life in God’s new system need to recognize this arrangement. For Jesus said that, in this “time of the end,” he separates to a position of favor those doing good to the remaining ones on earth of his “brothers,” his joint heirs who make up the Christian congregation. (Matt. 25:31-40) These are the remaining ones of the “living stones” that are built up into a spiritual house or temple, “a place for God to inhabit by spirit.”—1 Pet. 2:5; Eph. 2:20-22.
Those ‘doing good’ to the members of this temple class are described in the book of Revelation as a “great crowd” of persons who come under God’s protection. Contrasting them with those who make up the spiritual congregation, the Bible says: “Look! a great crowd, which no man was able to number, out of all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, standing before the throne . . . And they keep on crying with a loud voice, saying: ‘Salvation we owe to our God,’ . . . and they are rendering him sacred service day and night in his temple.” This service in the temple indicates that they are serving in association with the remnant of the spiritual temple class, the Christian congregation.—Rev. 7:9, 10, 15.
These sheeplike persons say, in effect, to the heirs of the promise made to Abraham: “We will go with you people, for we have heard that God is with you people.” (Zech. 8:23) Even as those of the true church or congregation faithfully walk in Christ’s footsteps and proclaim the Kingdom message, so likewise these sheeplike ones ‘go with them,’ serving God right along with them. Are you doing that? If so, you have the prospect of receiving eternal life on earth, along with all the other blessings that will flow from Christ and his glorified congregation in the heavens.