We live in a very religious world. Of the nearly eight billion people that inhabit planet earth the vast majority are religious. Dr. David Barrett, editor of the “World Christian Encyclopedia,” states that there are 19 major world religions which are subdivided into 270 large religious groups, and many smaller ones. 34,000 separate Christian groups have been identified in the world. The largest religious groups are Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.
Christianity represents approximately 32 percent of the world’s population, but in the United States and Canada there are over 1,000 different groups that call themselves Christian. My point is not to give you a religious history lesson but to simply point out that the world we live in is an extremely religious one, and man is finding religion is not enough.
Last week we began with the question, what did Jesus mean when He used the term “church” in the classic statement of Matthew 16 “I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” We discovered He meant more than brick and mortar. He was referring to something He would build, not man. The church that Jesus referred to was to be more than an institution. It was to be the extension of His life lived out in those who had a personal relationship with Him by means of salvation.
The question this week is, was He speaking of religion and religious activities and beliefs or something else? I would suggest that He was definitely not speaking of religion when He used the term church.
A dictionary definition of religion is: “belief in, or worship of a god or gods.” A simple definition of religion might be: “man made systems in an attempt to connect to a god or gods.” With those definitions in mind the church of Jesus would not qualify. The church Jesus said He would build is initiated by a living God not by man.
When Jesus and other writers of the Bible used the term church they used the term “eklesia”, which basically means, “called out ones.” Christians are those God has called out to be in His family through what He described to Nicodemus in John 3 as being born again.
Religion has not been a friend of mankind in many ways. For centuries wars have been waged in the name of religion. The attack on America, on 9/11, had a great deal to do with religion. To a great degree religion was at the heart of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. It was the religious of Jesus’ day that had the greatest difficulty with the person and teaching of Jesus. He did not fit in the box of their beliefs and rules. He did not fit in their “church” box. Today people around the world are divided by their religious beliefs.
If Jesus was not speaking of religion when He said He would build His church, of what was He speaking? The Bible makes it clear that He was speaking of what would make Christianity different from religion. Rather than man attempting to have a relationship with their Creator, namely Jesus Christ, He was initiating a relationship with man. But there was and is a problem. How can sinful mankind have a personal relationship with a perfect and sinless God, (Romans 3:9-23; II Corinthians 5:21)? The Bible declares that for man to have a personal relationship with a perfect God, man’s sinful nature had to be dealt with. That is exactly what God did by sending His Son, Jesus, into the world. He paid the penalty of sin by His death on the cross (Romans 6:23; Isaiah 53:6). Those who place their trust in Jesus Christ become members, not of a religious group, but a member of the spiritual family of God, called Church. This church has no geographical or language barriers.
The Bible (Ephesians 1:22; I Corinthians 3:11) states that Jesus is the head and the foundation of the church. This church is not some physical structure or organization. It is the living, breathing life of the resurrected Lord Jesus being lived out in all who call Him Savior and Lord.
The bottom line is: religion is not enough. Religion could not spiritually unite every born again person in the world into one body called “Church.” It took the grace of God, His favor to undeserving sinners, to build His church. It took God’s forgiveness and salvation. The question we all must answer is: “Am I a member of the church family that Jesus is building?” We can be a member of a religious group and still be outside what He is building.
Next week we will talk about the church that is greater than denominations. This week I encourage all of us to think seriously about whether we are truly a part of what God is building in the world today, His Church!