In Matthew 16:18 the Lord says, “Upon this rock I will build My church.” This is the universal church. But if we go on to 18:17, we see the local church. I know some Christian teachers who take a stand by using only Matthew 16:18. They ask, “Is the church mentioned in this verse the local church?” They seem to present a strong argument. We agree that in Matthew 16:18 it is not the local church, but we cannot drop Matthew 18:17. We must go on from Matthew 16 to Matthew 18. Is the church in Matthew 18 the local church or the universal church? If it is the universal church, the church in the heavens, how could we go to it today when we have a problem? Matthew 18 says that if we have a problem to be solved by the church, we must go to the church. If this church is not the local church but something in the heavens, how can we go to it today?
If in any locality there is not a local church, regardless of how much we talk about the church, we do not have the practicality. In the past years I have noticed how many Christian teachers have spoken and written so much about the church. But eventually they did not have its practicality. Where is the practical church on this earth? Where is it?
Matthew 16:18 is precious, but Matthew 18:17 is practical. A local church may not be as spiritual as it should be, but it is practical to us. The church in Los Angeles may not be as marvelous as that mentioned in Matthew 16:18, but we have it and we enjoy it. Hallelujah! It is a church to which I can go. I cannot go to the church mentioned in Matthew 16:18. It is so wonderful, but where is it?
Therefore, regardless of how poor and weak the church in Los Angeles may be, we do have a church here. It is better than something in the air. When we have a problem, we do have somewhere to go. This is something practical.
In fact, Matthew 16:18 is included in Matthew 18:17. If we have Matthew 18:17, we have Matthew 16:18. How could we have Matthew 16:18 without Matthew 18:17? We cannot have the church without the local church.
From Matthew 18 we go on to the following Gospels. Mark did not say anything about the church; neither did Luke or John. Then we come to the book of Acts. Is there a verse in Acts that tells us something about the universal church? All the verses in Acts regarding the church refer to the local churches. They are the church mentioned in Matthew 18, which, as we have said, includes the one mentioned in Matthew 16.
The first verse mentioning the church in Acts is 5:11. After the death of Ananias and Sapphira, fear came upon the whole church. Undoubtedly, this is the local church at Jerusalem. The second and third times that the word church is used are in 8:1 and 3: “The church which was in Jerusalem.” The fourth mentioning is in 9:31: “Then the church throughout the whole of Judea and Galilee and Samaria had peace.” All of these verses refer to local churches on the earth. The church mentioned in 11:22 is “the church which was in Jerusalem,” and that mentioned in 11:26 is the church in Antioch. The church mentioned in 12:1 and 5 is again the church in Jerusalem. Then in 13:1 we see the local church in Antioch. In 14:23 Paul and Barnabas appointed elders in every church. These, of course, are the local churches. In Acts 14:27 it is the church in Antioch again. In 15:3-4 it was the church in Antioch that brought Paul and Barnabas on their way and the church in Jerusalem that received them. In 15:22 it is the church in Jerusalem again. In 15:41 there are the local churches of Syria and Cilicia. In 16:5 there are the churches of the Gentile world (see 15:23). In 18:22 again we have the church in Jerusalem. In 20:17 and 28 it is the church in Ephesus.
Are all these churches in Acts the church in the heavens? No, they are all the local churches on the earth.
After Acts come the Epistles. In all these books the local churches are mostly dealt with. Only somewhat more than ten verses, most of which are in Ephesians, deal with the universal church (1 Cor. 10:32; 12:28; Eph. 1:22; 3:10, 21; 5:23-25, 27, 29, 32; Col. 1:18-24). The book of Romans was written to the church in Rome. First and 2 Corinthians were written to the church in Corinth. Nearly all the Epistles were written to local churches.
After the Epistles we have the book of Revelation, which is the conclusion of the New Testament. It was written to the seven local churches in Asia (1:4, 11) and reveals that the Lord Jesus is in the midst of the local churches. He is walking in the midst of the seven golden lampstands, which are seven local churches (vv. 13, 20; 2:1). It also reveals to us that the ultimate consummation of the church is the New Jerusalem, which is in eternity (22:1-5). But in time, while we are on this earth today, we must be in the local churches. Without the local churches there is no practicality to us of the church. When the ultimate consummation comes, we will have the New Jerusalem. But before that day, all we have practically is the local church. If we do not have the local church today, practically speaking, we do not have the church. The local church is the practicality of the church. The church today is practically in the local churches.
(The Practical Expression of the Church, Chapter 4, Section 1)