|IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 22, July 26 to August 1, 1999|
The British playwright, Dorothy Sayers, once said that "God went through three great humiliations in his pursuit of humanity." The first was the Incarnation, when Jesus took on human flesh and became like us. The second was the Cross, where he died a shameful and painful death. And the third, she said, was the church, "when God entrusted his reputation to ordinary — sometimes very ordinary — people."
This morning we are beginning a series of messages on the church — what it is and what it is not. And as we embark on this journey it is important that we keep the subject before us in perspective. As one historian has observed, "in history a keen [interest in the church] has, almost without exception, been a sign of spiritual decadence."
And so, with that caution in mind, and thinking of the words of Ms. Sayers, it is important to keep our study on the church in perspective and in proportion. By "in perspective" I mean that we must not lose sight of the fact that when we think about the church, it is not simply a reflection on us. It is a reflection on God. The two are caught up together, so to lose sight of either aspect is to stray into error. By "in proportion" I mean that, as important as this issue is for us, "the doctrine of the church is not the most fundamental doctrine of Scripture," as Ed Clowney puts it. We don't want to lose the forest for the trees, and so we must be measured in our approach to this subject.
It is also important to note, at this early stage, that our approach in handling this subject, while certainly biblically driven, will not work systematically through books of the Bible, from beginning to end. In approaching a subject or handling a certain topic (like the church, or the Holy Spirit, or capital punishment, etc.), one must of necessity range over the whole of Scripture to come up with a composite picture of what the Bible has to say on the matter. This is due to the nature of how the Bible was written and put together. In the Bible we don't have an encyclopedia of useful things that one might need to know for life so that, if we want to know what the Bible says about money for instance, we turn to the "M" section and find it there in alphabetical order between Methuselah and Moses. That's not how the Bible was written. The organising principle of the Bible is not essentially topical, but rather it is essentially (although not strictly) historical.
So, if you want to know what the Bible says about money, you're going to have to look in a lot of different places, spending time looking at various verses. And when you do so, you will, of course, need to make sure you are interpreting them in a way which is consistent with their context. But you will not be taking the time to interpret the whole book in which that verse is found. To take that approach would involve you in a never-ending task.
And so, as we look at the subject of the church in Scripture, we will be looking at various portions of the Bible — a verse here, a chapter there, a paragraph in another place — but always with the intent of understanding the passages properly, and with the ultimate goal of putting together a faithful picture of what the Bible, as a whole, has to say about the subject of the church.
Now you might suppose that when you're thinking about the church, the place to start would be somewhere in the New Testament. After all, that is where the greek word translated as "church" is first used. But if you understand the church as the people of God, then you're going to have to look much earlier than Matthew's gospel to find the origins of that idea. Exodus 19 is a pivotal passage for getting us started in thinking about the church.
If you're not familiar with this story, let me just fill in a few gaps for you. In Genesis 12 God chose a man and his wife, Abraham and Sarah, and he promised that through them he would make a great nation, a people for himself. Then, in Genesis 15, after God had made this great promise to Abraham, he came to Abraham (called Abram):
"As the sun was setting, Abram fell into a deep sleep, and a thick and dreadful darkness came over him. Then the Lord said to him, ‘Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own, and they will be enslaved and mistreated four hundred years. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward they will come out with great possessions.'" (Gen. 15:12-14)
Now, sometime after this, in Genesis 37-50, you get the story of Abraham's great-grandson Joseph. It is the story of Joseph which sets the stage for the fulfillment of the words about Abram's descendants being enslaved. By the end of Genesis, Joseph and his brothers are living in Egypt, in a privileged position and a choice land. Then the opening chapter of Exodus tells us this:
"Now Joseph and all his brothers and all that generation died, but the Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them. Then a new king, who did not know about Joseph, came to power in Egypt. ‘Look,' he said to his people, ‘the Israelites have become much too numerous for us. Come we must deal shrewdly with them or they will become even more numerous and, if war breaks out, will join our enemies, fight against us and leave the country.' So they put slave masters over them to oppress them with forced labour, and they built Pithom and Rameses as store cities for Pharaoh" (Ex 1:6-13).
So, by the beginning of Exodus, Abraham's descendants were certainly numerous — as God promised — but they were not free. They need a deliverer, so God sent them Moses. This is what God said to Moses about this important job he had been given:
"Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Pharaoh's heart is unyielding; he refuses to let the people go. Go to Pharaoh in the morning as he goes out to the water. Wait on the bank of the Nile to meet him . . . Then say to him, "The Lord, the God of the Hebrews, has sent me to say to you: Let my people go, so that they may worship me in the desert"'" (Exod. 7:14-16).
After lots of amazing and terrifying things happened, Pharaoh let the Hebrew people go and they gathered together in the desert at the foot of Mt Sinai:
"Then Moses went up to God, and the Lord called to him from the mountain and said, ‘This is what you are to say to the house of Jacob and what you are to tell the people of Israel: "You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles' wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.' These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites" (Exod. 19:3-6)
This event of the Exodus, of God's bringing them out of one nation, separating them, setting them apart and then bringing them together to himself and for himself, was a pivotal, character-forming, identity-shaping event for the people of God. God brought them out in order that he might bring them in, together, as his people assembled before him in the wilderness, to worship him, to give attention to him, to listen to his words given to them by his servant Moses. And God had identified them as his "treasured possession," a "kingdom of priests" and a "holy nation."
The pivotal nature of this event is seen in various ways in the Bible. By the time you get to Deuteronomy 4, many years have come and gone since that initial gathering in Exodus 19. The Israelites have wandered in the wilderness for almost 40 years — because of their own sin — and a whole generation has perished without seeing the land which had been promised them. And here they are now, on the cusp of the land, right on the edge, and there is a pause before they move in to take the land. Moses is still with them, but he will not be the one to take them into the land because of his own rebellion. The leaders of God's people are not immune from the consequences of their own sin any more than anyone else is.
So here, in Deuteronomy, we have essentially three great addresses or farewell messages from Moses to the people of God before they enter the land and before Moses dies. Chapter 4 is part of Moses' first address. Listen to what he says, starting at verse 5:
"See, I have taught you decrees and laws as the Lord my God commanded me, so that you may follow them in the land you are entering to take possession of it. Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.' What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today? Only be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them. Remember the day you stood before the Lord your God at Horeb, when he said to me, ‘Assemble the people before me to hear my words so that they may learn to revere me as long as they live in the land and may teach them to their children.' You came near and stood at the foot of the mountain while it blazed with fire to the very heavens, with black clouds and deep darkness. Then the Lord spoke to you out of the fire. You heard the sound of words but saw no form; there was only a voice. He declared to you his covenant, the Ten Commandments, which he commanded you to follow and then wrote them on two stone tablets" (Deut. 4:5-13).
Moses reminded them of this very significant event in the life of God's people and told them to keep remembering that day. And then Moses died and the people of God get a new leader, Joshua, who led them into the promised land. In Joshua 8, after they were in the land but before they had conquered all their enemies, there was a special ceremony led by Joshua which basically reenacted the events at Mt Sinai, recommitting the people to God's covenant:
"Then Joshua built on Mount Ebal an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the Israelites . . . On it they offered to the Lord burnt offerings and sacrificed fellowship offerings. There, in the presence of the Israelites, Joshua copied on stones the law of Moses, which he had written. All Israel, aliens and citizens alike, with their elders, officials, and judges, were standing on both sides of the ark of the covenant of the Lord, facing those who carried it — the priests, who were Levites. Half of the people stood in front of Mt Gerizim and half of them in front of Mt Ebal. . . Afterward, Joshua read all the words of the law — the blessings and the curses — just as it is written in the Book of the Law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded that Joshua did not read to the whole assembly of Israel" (Josh. 8:30-35).
Here again, you see this picture of God's people, gathering together to worship God through sacrifice and offering, and to listen to God's words to them through God's servant Joshua. As you continue to read through the Old Testament, you see that this pattern repeats all over the place — with King David, with Jehoshaphat, Joash, and Hezekiah. Even after the people of God had been taken into exile in a foreign country, and a remnant had subsequently returned to the land, even after that great disruption, the pattern continued under Ezra and Nehemiah:
"So on the first day of the seventh month Ezra the priest brought the Law before the assembly, which was made up of men and women and all who were able to understand. He read it aloud from daybreak till noon . . . And all the people listened attentively to the Book of the Law. Ezra the scribe stood on a high wooden platform built for the occasion . . . Ezra opened the book. All the people could see him because he was standing above them; and as he opened it, the people stood up. Ezra praised the Lord, the great God; and all the people lifted their hands and responded, ‘Amen! Amen!' Then they bowed down and worshiped the Lord with their faces to the ground. The Levites . . . instructed the people in the Law while the people were standing there. They read from the Book of the Law of God, making it clear and giving the meaning so that the people could understand what was being read" (Neh. 8:2-8).
To be a member of the people of God in the Old Testament, meant, at the very least, having the privilege of standing in the great assembly of God's people — worshipping him together and listening to his word being read in a way which made it clear and understandable. In the Old Testament we get a picture of the people of God, coming together at crucial points in their history — for praise and worship, for listening and learning.
In Acts 7:38 you have Stephen, one of the first Christians, who has been arrested on false charges as a direct result of his gospel work. In chapter 7 we have the record of his great defense speech before the local religious authorities, the Sanhedrin. In his defense he is recounting the great history of the people of God and, not surprisingly, one of the central elements of that history, as Stephen tells it, is the account of God's people gathering together in Exodus 19. Now, there's a lot going on in this passage, but for our purposes all I really want you to focus on is the language that Stephen uses when he describes the account of Exodus 19:
"This is that Moses who told the Israelites, ‘God will send you a prophet like me from your own people.' [Moses] was in the assembly in the desert, with the angel who spoke to him on Mount Sinai, and with our fathers; and he received living words to pass on to us" (Acts 7:37-38).
Now the impact of those words is, unfortunately, lost because of the way the translators of the NIV have chosen to go. But the word "assembly" in verse 38 is the same word which is usually and regularly translated as "church" or "congregation" in the rest of the New Testament. So, substituting "church" for "assembly," one might read verse 38 as "Moses was in the church in the desert" or "Moses was in the congregation in the desert."
Now I think the translation "assembly" also is fine, but what I want you to see is that there is a connection between the word "church" and the word "assembly" in the Old Testament. In fact, in the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint [LXX]), the word for church is the same word which is frequently used to describe the assemblies of God's people all over the Old Testament — the same sort of assemblies we have been studying.
Clearly Stephen, speaking by the Spirit of God, saw a real connection, a sense of continuity between the assembly of God's people in the Old Testament and the "assembly" of God's people in the New Testament — the church. But Stephen was not alone in this understanding. Listen also to the words of 1 Peter:
"But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (1 Pet. 2:9-10).
Even though Peter does not use the word "church" at this particular point, that is clearly the reference point for his remarks. In particular, notice that Peter's New Testament language of "a royal priesthood" and "a holy nation" is virtually identical to the Old Testament description of God's people in Exodus 19 as "a kingdom of priests" and "a holy nation."
It seems clear, then, that God's people in the New Testament — his church — are still the gathering, worshipping, listening, and learning people of the Old Testament. That has not changed. What has changed from one testament to the other is the focal point or place of that worship. The original gathering of God's people was at Mount Sinai. But you'll notice that God did not leave them at Mt Sinai. Instead, he led them away from there until, eventually, their focal point was Mount Zion, which is Jerusalem, and specifically the Temple in Jerusalem. Now, since the coming of Jesus, the focal point has shifted again — indeed the whole character of things has shifted dramatically, as Hebrews 12 points out:
"You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm . . . But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.' The words ‘once more' indicate the removing of what can be shaken — that is, created things — so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire'" (Heb. 12:18,22-29).
The writer of Hebrews is contrasting the assembly of God's people at Mt Sinai with the assembly of God's people at Mount Zion — Jerusalem. As Clowney writes,
"We do not come to Mount Sinai in our worship, but to Mount Zion . . . [And] that Zion is not the earthly, but the heavenly Zion, the sanctuary of the eternal city of God. For the author of Hebrews, this is not [just] a figurative way of speaking. It is as real as the living God. . . . In our worship in Christ's church we approach the throne of God the Judge of all. We enter the festival assembly of the saints and the angels. We gather in spirit with the spirits of just men made perfect. We enter the assembly of glory through Christ our Mediator, and the blood of his atoning death. For that reason we must hear and heed the word of of the Lord, and ‘worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.'"
Do you see what the writer of Hebrews is saying? Just as God's people in the Old Testament looked back to the earthly assembly at Sinai as a defining event, now God's people in the New Testament look ahead, to the heavenly assembly of God's people. And not only do we look forward to that assembly, but we in fact are participants in that assembly even now, while we are here on earth. Because Christ has risen and sits with God the Father in heaven right now, and because we are in spiritual union with Christ, then as the praise and worship of God is going on at this moment we are there, in Christ, as worshippers of God with all of God's people, especially those who have already gone to be with the Lord.
Yet, while we have, in one sense, already arrived and are present as part of the heavenly assembly of God's people, it is also true that we are not yet there. As we have already seen in previous studies, the reality is that as God's people we live "now and the not yet." Experiencing the shadow, but not the fullness. We live in the overlap of the ages, when the kingdom of God has been inaugurated with Christ's coming, but has yet to be consummated at Christ's return. Until he comes again, we experience of the tension of living between the ages. But that which is only true now in Christ and in Spirit will be one day brought to fulfilment in fact, and experienced fully and bodily by us with Christ in heaven.
It's a lot like the situation with regard to our righteousness before God. In one sense we are already righteous in Christ. He has declared us to be so, and his death has made us right with God, taking away our sin penalty. But in ourselves we still struggle. The penalty of sin may be dealt with, but the presence of sin is still very real. Thanks to God, however, through the work of God's Spirit in our lives we are made to become what he has already declared us to be in Christ. There is an "already and not yet" character to our life in Christ.
The same could be said of our experience of belonging to the assembly of God's people — his church. Already we are part of that assembly in Christ. And yet we have yet to arrive there in ourselves and experience the full, bodily reality of being there in the presence of our Lord. But that day is coming.
Does this mean our earthly gatherings — our earthly churches — are not all that important since the heavenly reality is the thing to which we are all moving? On the contrary, it means that our earthly gatherings are even more important than ever. The local church should be seen as an earthly manifestation of the greater spiritual reality. If the ultimate goal to which we are moving is indeed to fully participate in the heavenly assembly of God's people, then surely the pattern of our life now should be seen as anticipation of and preparation for that. And of course, this is precisely the perspective of the writer of Hebrews:
"Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another — and all the more as you see the day approaching" (Heb. 10:19-25).
As I said at the beginning, we're going to be looking at this subject for a number of weeks. And as such, I wouldn't want you to draw all your conclusions today. I wouldn't want you to think that what we've seen so far is either complete or even all that well balanced. But there are some important lessons for us, even in the very little bit that we have seen.
Firstly, I think it is important for us as God's people to grasp something of the sweep and breadth of this subject within the Scriptures. While there is certainly a kind of "newness" about the New Testament concept of church, at the same time there is an "oldness" about it. We see that God has always been about the business of choosing and setting apart and gathering together a people for himself. If you're a Christian, then you need to remember that. You need to remember that you are part of something that is much bigger than you, something that has been going on from the beginning of human history. You are part of the greatest story ever. And for that reason alone, your life can never be insignificant. You are a card-carrying member of the people of God. To some who might feel rootless, un-attached, as if they don't belong anywhere or to anyone — take heart. These are your roots. The Bible is your story. These people are your people. This is your family heritage, your family photo album, your family history. You belong to these people. The people of God.
Secondly, belonging to a people means that you have the great privilege and responsibility of demonstrating your attachment to God's people. You don't seek your identity apart from your connection to the people of God but through that connection. All of my life I've heard professed Christians express to me the belief that "one can be a good Christian, and not go to any church," or something to that effect, the idea being that remaining vitally connected to the people of God is only an option for Christians which they need not feel compelled to take up if they so choose. I want you to know that that sort of thinking is completely wrong-headed. That mindset is utterly foreign to the Bible. It's simply not true. Show me a "good Christian" in isolation from the people of God and I'll show you a person who is either not telling the whole truth or who has a definition of "Christian" that the Bible wouldn't recognise. Somehow, some way, we have to get away from this thoroughly unbiblical notion that living in responsible relationship with other Christians is optional for believers. That is not true, and it has never been true.
Now this runs contrary to the way we tend to think. Most of the time people think that the way to establish their own identity is through getting rid of any and all restraints, and having few if any commitments to anyone or anything. The more we can be free of our parents, our children, our families, our spouses, our responsibilities, the more free we are to "be ourselves" and to explore new and exciting possibilities — so the argument goes. But that argument would only be true on the assumption that, as people, we weren't made to function in community.
However, the fact is that we have been wired for living in responsible relationship with others. And, far from making things better, when we cut back on our attachments and commitments, our self tends to shrink, not grow. Think about Peter for a moment. If Peter had never met Jesus, he would probably have spent the rest of his life as a fisherman, and probably a very good one. But he would never have gotten very far on his own. He would have never learned that he was such a coward or, subsequently, that he could be so courageous in the face of great danger and hardship. He would never have learned what a good pastor and teacher and preacher he could be. Peter found out more about whom God had made him to be — not by pursuing his individuality but by becoming attached to the person of Jesus and to the lives of other believers. As a result, his life became so much more than it ever would have become otherwise.
We don't just belong to God on our own. It's not just about "me and Jesus." As we've seen today, the church is about we and us, gathered by God to be his people, together, in community, not in isolation. And, as Graham Cole says, the teaching of the Bible is that relationship implies responsibility. We are to live in vital relationship and to deny that relationship, to ignore one's responsible involvement among the people of God is not a sign of the strength of one's character or how mature and spiritually independent one has become. It is a sign of a rebellious and foolish heart.
But, by God's grace, it is not an unforgiveable sin. There is always room for repentance here. Please pray that God will search your heart and show you where you stand on this issue. Pray that God will show you how you can live out, faithfully, the truth that you are a part of the people of God. And as you pursue your life among God's people, it is my prayer that you will discover, maybe for the first time, who you really are.