|IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 28, July 10 to July 16, 2000|
by Rev. J. Scott Lindsay
This week we are continuing in our series of sermons on the church, seeking to understand more fully what the Bible has to say about what the church is, and what the church is for. In our previous outings we have seen that the church is:
- The people of God
- Forgiven sinners
- Doers of good
- A portrait of grace
- God's new nation
This morning we will be looking at the church as the fellowship of the Spirit. In doing so, I want to point out at least three ways in which this is true for God's people, three reasons why the phrase "the fellowship of the Spirit" is an appropriate description of God's people, his church.
- Firstly, we will see that the church is rightly called the fellowship of the Spirit because it is the temple where God dwells by his Spirit.
- Secondly, the church is the fellowship of the Spirit because the Holy Spirit is the source of every Christian's salvation and growth in godliness.
- Thirdly, the church is the fellowship of the Spirit because it is in and through the people of God, in their life and ministry, that the various manifestations of the Spirit take place.
The church is the fellowship of the Spirit because it is the temple, the place where God dwells by his Spirit. It is the "household of God" as the New Testament puts it, the place where God is present within and amongst his people.
In the Old Testament, in the book of Exodus, starting around chapter 25, there is a long account about the construction of the Tabernacle for the people of God. Now the tabernacle was like a portable temple, signifying the meeting place between God and his people. Inside the Tabernacle, in the Most Holy Place, was the Ark of the Covenant which contained the commandments and which symbolised the presence of God. The whole thing, then, was to be like a flashing neon sign saying, "God is here!" amongst his people.
Now, in Exodus, after God had given the instructions regarding the tabernacle but before any work had actually been done on it - right there in the middle - is the unfortunate account of God's people rebelling against him by making a golden calf. God is very angry about all this, and Moses becomes concerned that God will reject the people of Israel. So, he says to God,
"If your presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth? And the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name'" (Exod. 33:15-17).
What is it, according to Moses, that distinguishes the people of God? What sets them apart from all other people on the face of the earth? It is the presence of God. The presence of God is so important for Moses that he is unwilling to go any further, to take a single step, until he has the assurance that God will go with them, that God will be present among them.
Later in the Old Testament, there is a ceremony of dedication in which the Ark of the Covenant, which used to be in the temporary tabernacle, was moved into the permanent temple which Solomon built. 1 King 8:10-12 recalls the climax of this ceremony:
"When the priests withdrew from the Holy Place, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord. And the priests could not perform their service because of the cloud for the glory of the Lord filled his temple. Then Solomon said, ‘The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud: I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever.'"
Again, the main thing I want you to see is that here the same idea is in operation - the presence of God, dwelling amongst his people, is symbolised by the temple.
Much later in the Old Testament we come to the book of Ezekiel which, according to John Woodhouse, is the definitive book on the Holy Spirit in the Old Testament. And in Ezekiel it is clear that even though God's people are now in exile, God promises that a day is coming when he will once again dwell among his people:
"I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant. I will establish them and increase their numbers, and I will put my sanctuary among them forever. My dwelling place will be with them; I will be their God, and they will be my people" (Ezek. 37:26-27).
Clearly, the Old Testament understanding was that what sets God's people apart from all the peoples of the world is the fact of God's presence among them. And this understanding is carried right over into the New Testament as well. In 1 Corinthians 3, Paul rebuked certain people who were in the process of destroying the church in Corinth by aligning themselves with certain leaders in the church, creating factions and divisions. Instead of being united by a common Spirit, they were dividing over personalities. In the context of that, Paul wrote the following words to them:
"Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit lives in you? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy him; for God's temple is sacred and you are that temple" (1 Cor 3:16-17).
What's Paul saying to the Corinthians? He's saying, "How can you argue and quarrel over the matter of mere people when the Spirit of God is amongst you?" Paul is reminding them that the important thing is not mere people like Apollos or Paul or Cephas. No, the important thing is that God is present among them in and by his Spirit.
This is one of the significances of the coming of the Spirit in Acts 2. There is, I believe, a parallel between God's coming to dwell in his temple in the Old Testament and God's coming to dwell in his temple - his people - in the New Testament, symbolised by the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. And just as in the Old Testament with the cloud, so too is the coming of God in the New Testament marked by signs that point to the presence and reality of God among his people.
And not only is God present among his people corporately, but also individually. That is, not only is it true that as God's people are gathered together, they are corporately the temple of God's Spirit. It is also true that each individual believer can rightly be described as a "temple" of the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:16-19; Eph. 2:19-22). Listen to what Paul says in Romans 8:8-11:
"Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ , he does not belong to Christ."
Individual believers are temples of the Holy Spirit. But notice also that these words point to another important aspect of God's Spirit dwelling amongst his people. Notice how in verse 9 Paul talks about the Spirit, and then the Spirit of God, and then the Spirit of Christ - all in the same breath. He moves very easily from one to another, and for good reason. Paul does not artificially separate out the Holy Spirit from the rest of the Trinity. In Paul's mind, it is God in all his fullness - Father, Son and Holy Spirit - that is present in and through the Spirit's indwelling the people of God. The Spirit does not just mediate the Spirit's presence, but that of the Father and the Son as well. Those who focus only on the presence of the Spirit would do well to take notice of this fact.
Now this truth that the church, corporately and individually, is the dwelling place in which God is present by his Spirit was a driving motif behind Paul's teaching on godly living, and it has implications for Christians in every age. For example, in 1 Corinthians 6 Paul is addressing the issue of sexually immoral behaviour on the part of some people associated with the church at Corinth. In particular, he discusses the matter of sleeping with prostitutes. Notice how Paul argues in warning the Corinthian believers against this:
"Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ himself? Shall I then take the members of Christ and unite them with a prostitute? Never! ... Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore, honor God with your body" (1 Cor. 6:15-20).
What Paul is doing, among other things, is showing what, ultimately, is so horrific about our failure to resist sin, especially sexual sin. Paul here describes the virtually unthinkable: Christ united to a prostitute. The very notion is repulsive in the extreme - and it's meant to be. That is the painful, ugly implication of what happens when Christians, who are united to Christ, give in to sexual immorality. Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are people in whom the Spirit of God dwells. They are not their own; they have been bought at a price.
You need to remember that too. When you are tempted to sin, you need to remember at least two things: 1) the Spirit of God that dwells within you; and 2) your connection to other believers in Christ. You need to remember that it's not just about you - it's about you as a person in whom the Spirit of God dwells, you who are part of the body of Christ. You need to remember the responsibility you have toward God and toward other Christians.
If you don't know it already, there is a trendy thing happening in some Christian circles centered around the phrase "What Would Jesus Do?" or "WWJD." Those initials can be found on t-shirts, baseball hats, lapel pins and bracelets that people wear. The idea, roughly, is to promote godly living by getting people to think about the question "What would Jesus do?" in the various circumstances of life. Now, I'm not a big fan of the "WWJD" phenomenon, for various reasons, but I'm sure that it has some value for some people in their walk with God. But I imagine that if Paul were around today, he wouldn't be wearing a shirt that had "WWJD" printed on it. But he might have a shirt with this printed on it:
Translated it means: "What should I do knowing that I am a person in whom the Spirit of God dwells?" (Try fitting that on a baseball hat!) But, seriously, this is precisely the sort of thinking that Paul wants to promote among the Corinthians. Would I really want to unite the Spirit of God to a prostitute, or associate the Son of God with hatred, malice, greed, immorality, dissentions, gossip, lying, slander, etc.? What an unholy alliance that would be! We are meant to be repulsed by the very thought of it. And, not only are we to think about the fact of the Spirit's indwelling, but we are also to remember that we are "members" of one another in Christ. We are to remember our brothers and sisters in Christ. Their reputation is involved as well. Your fellow Christians are affected by your struggles with sin. When you resist and succeed, they are honoured. When you lose the struggle, it is not only you who suffers, but every other Christian as well. It's not just about you. It's not just about me. The fact that we are a people in whom God is present by his Spirit has serious implications for our pursuit of holiness.
So, the next time you are faced with temptation, try to take in a bigger perspective. Try to remember that you are not your own, that you are not standing there by yourself. You are standing there with Christ and with the company of his people. That thought should act both as a deterrent and also as a comfort, a resource that you can call on in prayer to God and in person to God's people who have a sworn responsibility to bear with you, to help you, to stand with you in your fight.
The church is the fellowship of the Spirit because it is the temple, the place where God dwells by his Spirit. It is also called the fellowship of the Spirit because the one Holy Spirit is the source of every Christian's salvation and growth in godliness.
From the very beginning of our lives as Christians, the thing we have in common is the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, making us alive to God. As Paul puts it in Titus 3:3-7,
"At one time we too were foolish, disobedient, deceived and enslaved by all kinds of passions and pleasures. We lived in malice and envy, being hated and hating one another. But when the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Saviour, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life."
It was the Spirit's work in our hearts that enabled us to respond to the good news of Jesus Christ. He has given us "eyes to see" and "ears to hear." This is the common reality and possession of all of God's people.
But not only is the Spirit there at the beginning of every Christian's life, He is there throughout the remainder of their lives as well -- working within them to produce the character of Christ, guiding them into truth, growing them in holiness. In Galatians 5:16-26 Christians are urged to "live by the Spirit" and "keep in step with the Spirit." And the clear teaching of those verses is that as we cooperate with desires that God's Spirit give us, we will resist sin and pursue good, and that through that process the Spirit of God grows and changes us to be more like Jesus.
One of the implications of this is to realise that, because the Spirit is the indispensable factor in every Christian's conversion, and because the Spirit is presently working in every living believer to make them more like Christ, every Christian is a "Spirit-filled" Christian. Every Christian has the common possession of God's Spirit. As Paul says, "If anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ" (Rom. 8:9).
To put it another way, every Christian is a "charismatic" Christian because every Christian has received and still possesses the gift (charismata) of the Spirit of God. And if every Christian is, by definition, a charismatic Christian, then every true church must be a charismatic church. For one segment of the Christian community to lay exclusive claim to the title "charismatic" is to distort a basic, fundamental truth of the New Testament. Two weeks ago I told you that every true church was a Uniting church. Today I am telling you that every true church is also a charismatic church - there's no other kind. Now there may be other things that distinguish one church from another, but it is most certainly not the fact that one is charismatic and the other is not. To distinguish between churches by describing one as "charismatic" and the other as "non-charismatic," or one as "Spirit-filled" and the other as "non-Spirit-filled," is both inaccurate and unhelpful. And, often, there is an air of exclusivity about the whole thing that is just wrong.
The church is the fellowship of the Spirit because it is the place where God dwells by his Spirit. The church is also the fellowship of the Spirit because the one Holy Spirit is the source of every Christian's salvation and growth in godliness. And, finally, the church is rightly called "the fellowship of the Spirit" because it is in and through the people of God, in their life and ministry, that the various manifestations of the Spirit take place.
In other words, the reality that God "really does dwell among us" is demonstrated in at least three different ways as the Spirit works among us:
- Gifts - As Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12; and Ephesians 4 point out, God has gifted his people in different ways so that they might use their differing gifts to minister to one another in the church. Now, ministering to the needs of a whole community of God's people requires a number of different gifts to pull it off. That's why God doesn't give everyone the same gifts. The purpose of the gifts is to work for the common good, to serve one another and the gospel - and that service is multi-faceted. To have a church were everyone was the same would be like having a tool box with 23 screwdrivers in it - and nothing else. The gifts are what make us different. But they are also a demonstration of the presence and working of God's Spirit as he uses the gifts of different people to build up a community of people and to bring the gospel to a lost world.
- Fruit - As Galatians 5 points out, God not only gifts his people, he works within them to produce a godly character that exhibits love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control. If the gifts are what make us different, the fruits are what make us the same. While not every Christian should seek or desire to have the same gifts, every Christian must desire to have the same fruits, especially the fruit of love for one another. The fruit of the Spirit is also a visible, tangible evidence of God's presence and work among us.
- The ministry of and response to the Word of God - In John 14:15-17 and 16:12-14, Jesus describes the Holy Spirit as "the Spirit of truth," and explains to his disciples that one of the Spirit's main tasks is to mediate the truth of God to the people of God - to make sure that the two get together. But how does the Holy Spirit accomplish this? He does it in at least three stages:
These three things put together show a very clear pattern:
- Firstly, it is the Holy Spirit who has inspired the writing of the Scriptures in the first place. Passages like 2 Peter 1:19-21 and 2 Timothy 3:15-17 point to this reality.
- Secondly, it is the Holy Spirit who gifts certain people within the body of Christ to serve as teachers of God's people. When you look at the various lists of gifts in the New Testament, what stands out is that the gifts which seem to be given greater prominence are precisely those gifts which relate in some way to the communication of a body of truth to God's people: teaching, prophecy, wisdom, etc. The emphasis, of course, is not on the person of the teacher but on the function of teaching and, by implication, the central importance of the Scriptures.
- The third stage in the Holy Spirit's job of "guiding" God's people into truth is when the Spirit enables the people of God to understand the things of God. This is the fact of illumination, and is the truth behind Paul's words in 1 Corinthians 2:14:
"The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned."
- The Spirit inspires truths to be written down in the first place.
- The Spirit gifts certain persons to teach these truths to the people of God.
- The Spirit enables these truths to be understood by illuminating the minds of believers.
Do you see the pattern here? Clearly, it is a great and continuing concern of the Holy Spirit to bring God's people face to face with God's truth. And just as clearly, if this has been the great and abiding concern of the Holy Spirit, then we must make it our concern as the people of God. But more than that, because the teaching of and response to the Scriptures is a work of the Spirit from beginning to end, we need to learn to see it as such. In other words, one of the clearest proofs that God's Spirit is dwelling amongst a people is the effect that the teaching of the Word has upon them, their hunger for it and response to it. To put it another way, one of the most "Spirit-filled," "charismatic" things you could ever witness among the people of God is the deafening silence that sometimes descends upon God's people as he uses his truth to lay open the secrets of their hearts.
Through the exercise of gifts, the exhibition of fruits, and the expounding of the Word of God, the presence of God through his Spirit is made patently obvious among God's people - but not just among God's people. As Paul showed in 1 Corinthians 14:22-25, his expectation was that if an unbeliever was to come into the midst of God's people in full flight - showing the gifts, and fruit of the Spirit, proclaiming the truths of God - that unbeliever would recognise the presence of God evidenced by these things and fall down on his/her knees exclaiming, "God is really among you!"
That's what we ought to be praying for regularly - that in every way we would show that we are truly the fellowship of the Spirit of God, that God is truly present amongst us, and that God would humble the unbelievers in our midst and bring them to a saving knowledge of himself.
What is the church? It's the fellowship of the Spirit. The place where almighty God dwells within his people.