The three biblical marks of a true church are: the preaching of the Word of God; the right administration of the sacraments; and the exercise of church discipline. These three marks follow the threefold offices of Christ who is the Head of the Church. These offices were a part of the Church in the Old Testament and are the office of prophet, priest, and king.
A prophet was a man called by God, chosen out from among God’s people to represent God to the people. A prophet brought the people the Word of God and thus revealed the will of God to His people. Moses was a prophet of God, and in Deuteronomy 18:18 God, speaking through Moses, promised His people another prophet like Moses, “I will raise them up a Prophet from among their brethren, like unto thee, and will put my words in his mouth; and he shall speak unto them all that I shall command him.”
This prophecy was fulfilled in Jesus Christ who was the Prophet of God (John 4:25-26; John 12:49-50). The New Testament refers back to this Old Testament prophetic office by often referring to “Moses and the prophets” (Luke 24:27,44; Luke 16:29,31; John 1:45, etc.) and identifying Jesus as its fulfillment (Hebrews 1:1-2). Today Christ still fulfills His prophetic office in the Church by “declaring God to His brethren.” When a minister faithfully preaches the Word of God to God’s people, Christ’s prophetic office is being carried out.
The Bible reveals to us in Hebrews 2:11-12 that Christ is the true preacher of the Word of God to His people. The text says, “For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, I will declare thy name unto my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise unto thee.” This text is quoting Psalm 22 which unmistakably is speaking about Christ. Christ is the one who declares God’s name unto His brethren.
When a man of God proclaims the Word of God to the Church, Christ Himself is proclaiming His Word and will to His people through the preaching of the Word. As the Church faithfully preaches the Word of God, Christ’s prophetic ministry is administered to His people. Therefore, the first mark of a true church is the faithful preaching of the Word because it is in the preaching that Christ is active in His prophetic office.
A priest was a man called by God, chosen out from among God’s people to represent the people before God. A priest was a mediator that stood between God and the people and provided atonement and intercession unto God in behalf of the people. Aaron and his sons represented served in the office of priest and represented the priesthood that would be fulfilled in Christ. To the office of priest were entrusted the rightful administration of the sacraments of the Old Testament which were primarily the ceremonies and sacrifices.
Christ in interceding for His people (John 17) and making atonement for their sins with His own blood administered the true atoning work to which all the sacraments pointed. Christ is the true high priest of His people (Hebrews 7:11-8:6; 1 Timothy 2:5). Today, Christ continues to exercise His priestly office by His intercession in behalf of His people (Hebrews 4:14-16). Likewise, His priestly office is mediated through the rightful administration of the sacraments (baptism and the Lord’s Supper) by His Church. When a Church rightfully administers Christ’s sacraments, they reveal His priestly work being done in behalf of His people. A Church that neglects or wrongfully administers the sacraments of God in the Church, has not the mark of a true church.
Lastly, God raised up David to be king over Israel, His people. The king of Israel rules over God’s people and governed them in the commonwealth of Israel. This office in the Old Testament Church identified the true King of Israel, the Lord Jesus Christ. During the administration of the Old Testament, the office of King would point forward to the Sovereign and Head of the Church.
In 2 Samuel 7:12-16, God establishes David’s throne and promises David that He would raise up a Son from him (his house) that would sit on the throne of Israel and reign forever. In fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant that God established with David, God sent forth His Son, Jesus to be the eternal King of the Church. In Psalm 110:1, David, who was then the king in Israel, acknowledges that Jehovah had made another to be David’s Lord (or King). Jesus Christ is the one who has all authority given unto Him (Matthew 28:18), and is the King of kings and Lord of lords (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 17:14).
Christ is still active in His kingly office exercising His authority in His Church. Jesus is the Head of the Church, and has given to the Church the keys of the kingdom (Matthew 16:19). In giving the keys of the kingdom to the Church, Christ has granted authority to His Church to exercise Church discipline in the binding and loosing (cf. Matthew 16:19 and Matthew 18:15-20).
A Church that fails to discipline its members will fail to have the presence of Christ among them. Church discipline is a means of grace for those who avail themselves to it (cf. Hebrews 12:3-11). It is perilous to those souls who fail to come under church authority (Hebrews 13:17), and a blessing to those who do. This last mark of a true Church, where Christ’s lordship is realized, is often the one most neglected in evangelical churches today.
Christ fulfills all three offices of prophet, priest, and king, and He exercises them within His Church. When a church fails to practice these three biblical marks which correspond to the active ministry of Christ, she will not have His presence in her, and she will not be a true church.