If you were looking for a new church home, what would you be looking for? What would be the criteria by which you make your selection? Size? Location? Style of Worship? Average age of the parishioners? How about facilities? Or the ministry programs? Or the preaching?
There are probably as many answers to that question as there are believers. Different people look for different things when it comes to finding a church. And trying to satisfy everyone is an absolute impossibility. But have you ever wondered, “What does Jesus look for in a church?” After all, it’s his church, right? What are the criteria by which he makes an evaluation?
Revelation 2-3 tell us. In these chapters we catch a glimpse of seven report cards for seven first-century churches in Asia Minor. The criteria Jesus uses to evaluate them may be different from our own. Now, Jesus is not looking for a new church home, but he is looking for a home in his church. What is it that makes him feel like he belongs in a group of believers? This message takes a summary look at that question in the context of John’s experience of the risen, glorified Christ.
John meets an awe-inspiring Jesus, functioning like a great high priest, actively tending to his lamps—filling his people with the oil of his Holy Spirit and trimming their wicks with his corrective word. He does these things so they can shine upon the nations with the hope of the gospel. The image tells us that the church is a company of believers vitally joined to Christ, giving light to the world. That’s a creative, apocalyptic way of saying much the same as we saw in the image of the church as the ambassadors of Christ.
Are we connected to the center stem of this lampstand—Jesus—by faith? Are we burning brightly for him? Are we allowing ourselves to be “trimmed” (i.e., sanctified) by the Lord? He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.
After winning the gold medal in the women’s tennis event at the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Serena Williams told a reporter, “I didn’t think it could be better than winning Wimbledon, but at Wimbledon, I was just playing for myself. The Olympic gold means more to me because I was playing for my country.”
It’s an interesting observation. When you’re competing to bring honor only to yourself, the victory may be wide, but it’s not very deep. When you’re competing to bring honor to an entire country, however, the victory is both wide and deep. But why? It’s because—in a sense—you’re sharing the celebration with the people you represent. Your victory is their victory, too. The joy is wider, and the satisfaction is deeper.
Imagine the significance, then, of representing not just a nation but an entire kingdom. And not just any kingdom but the kingdom of God. In 1 Corinthians 5:20, Paul says: “We are…Christ’s ambassadors.” In other words, we’re sent by the risen King—Jesus Christ—and we are sent to operate on his behalf in a certain cultural setting. We’re royal citizens of heaven, but we’re also heaven’s ambassadors on earth in a certain time and a certain ZIP code.
What are ambassadors? Ambassadors are government representatives commissioned to serve in a foreign country for the purpose of accurately communicating the position and policies of the government they represent so that the people to whom they speak will be brought into—and kept in a good relationship with—the government of the country they serve. When Paul writes, “We are Christ’s ambassadors,” he’s saying: The followers of Christ are the representatives of Christ in the world. That is both an honor and a challenge. This sermon takes a brief look at both the marks and message of an ambassador.
When it comes to the marks, Paul indicates that ambassadors of Christ must display loyalty, authenticity, humility, and winsomeness. They must have confidence in the message God sends them with and truly value the people he has made. There’s a sense of urgency to the task, and they have to be willing to let God share his message through them.
When it comes to the message, ambassadors of Christ speak about God and his grace. They do this because the benefits of the gospel are astounding. Paul writes, “God made him [Jesus] who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). Ambassadors also speak about God and his invitation. They do so because the consequences of rejecting the gospel are disastrous. Paul writes, “We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God!” (2 Cor 5:20). To whom are you being an ambassador for Christ?
Scattered throughout the New Testament are words, phrases, and illustrations that give the church a military flavor. In Philippians 2, for example, Paul speaks of “Epaphroditus, my brother, fellow worker and fellow soldier.” In Philemon 2 he refers to “Archippus our fellow soldier.” In 2 Timothy 2 Paul exhorts his young apprentice to “endure hardship with us like a good soldier of Christ Jesus.” Moreover, Paul writes in 1 Timothy 6:12, “Fight the good fight of the faith.” The Christian life is a battle.
But the military motif is found not only in Paul. It’s also found on the lips Jesus. In Matthew 11:12, Jesus offered this challenging statement: “From the days of John the Baptist until now, the kingdom of heaven has been forcefully advancing, and forceful men lay hold of it.” Forcefully advancing is something an army does. It’s no wonder, then, that theologians have long spoke of “the church militant,” that is, the church on mission, as opposed to “the church triumphant,” the company of believers who left the battlefield of this earth and have gone to be with Jesus.
Now, we have to interpret these kinds of Scriptures carefully. The Christian mission does not involve taking up arms against a human enemy to advance the cause. That’s a gross distortion of the nature and purpose of the kingdom of God. When Jesus stood before Pilate, he said in John 18, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place.” Moreover, the previous night—when Jesus was arrested in Gethsemane—Peter pulled out a sword and tried to attack the authorities, but Jesus said in Matthew 26:52, “Put your sword back in its place…for all who live by the sword will die by the sword.”
So, when we look carefully at the military flavored passages of the New Testament, it’s quite clear the type of conflict Christians are engaged in is radically different from the normal concept of warfare as we understand it. In fact, in this particular fight, the enemies are invisible. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 10:3-5:
3 For though we live in the world, we do not wage war as the world does. 4 The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds. 5 We demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, and we take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.
Our is a different kind of war, says Paul. “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood.” So, the military image is designed to teach believers that: The church of Jesus Christ is a spiritual army that fights spiritual enemies with spiritual weapons. This message takes a look at some of those weapons. It also emphasizes that believers are not struggling for a victory, but from a victory—the victory Christ has already won.
Many believers would agree with the statement, “This world is a mess!” Crime. Violence. Poverty. Injustice. Anger. Hostility. Greed. Loneliness. Depression. The list is long of what’s wrong with the human race. Yes—the world is a mess, but that mess is precisely why Jesus came! In a world filled with darkness, Jesus came to bring light. In a world filled with death, Jesus came to bring resurrection. In fact, on the very first Easter Sunday, the angelic message was, “Come and see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead’” (Matthew 28:6).
These are the verbs of Easter—come and see; go and tell. Gather and scatter. It’s always been that way with Jesus. He gathers his disciples to teach them. And then he sends them out to love others, do good works, and proclaim the gospel of the kingdom. He then gathers them back again to share their stories and do more teaching. It’s the rhythm of life for believers—even today. Indeed, the followers of Christ gather for motivation and scatter for mission.
Jesus said, “Freely you have received, now freely give” (Matthew 10:8). We gather to receive, and then we scatter to give. So, for the Church of Jesus Christ, there is constant ebb and flow between the attractional and the missional, the receiving and the giving, the coming together and the going out, the gathering and the scattering.
When we scatter, we do so to function as “the salt of the earth” (513a). Salt preserves. Salt seasons. Salt irritates. And salt cleanses. The challenge for salt is to remain pure. (5:13b). We also scatter to function as “the light of the world” (5:14a). Light illuminates. Light awakens. Light exposes. And light warms. The challenge for light is to not hide itself (5:14b-15). As Jesus said, “A city on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead, they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house.” There has to be a visibility to our faith, not just a philosophy. As one hymn puts it, “Let the beauty of Jesus be seen in me.”
Ephesians 3:10 conveys a fascinating truth: God’s intent is that “now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms.” That is, God’s people are on the stage of history right now, and the audience is not just a watching world. It’s much bigger than that. Moreover, the star of the show is God’s manifold wisdom—revealed “through the church.” That’s not just epic. It’s cosmic.
The Greek word underneath our English word “manifold” means “various,” “variegated, “assorted,” or “many-splendored.” It was a word used of the embroidery work of a multi-colored garment, or of a multi-colored bouquet of flowers, or of an array of multi-colored lights in the sky—the kind we might see in the Northern Lights. We could translate the word “iridescent,” “luminous,” or even “kaleidoscopic.” It refers to God’s brilliant, multi-faceted wisdom—a wisdom we see in creation with its many varieties of plants and animals that God made. We see it also in the church with her many varieties of people and personalities that God made.
This manifold wisdom of God, says Paul, is made known “to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms,” that is, spiritual beings who live in the unseen realm—whether they be good or evil. They’re watching history unfold, and as they do, God is displaying his manifold wisdom to them “through the church.” In the spiritual battle of cosmic history, the church is at the center of God’s plan.
That’s mind-boggling. When God wants to show forth his wisdom to the invisible realm, he points to the church! Now, that raises a question. Of all the vehicles God could have used to display his kaleidoscopic wisdom, he chooses the church? Really? Why on earth would he do that? We want to say, “Hey wait a minute, God. Have you been to church lately? Have you seen the crazy things your people do sometimes? Have you seen the petty things they argue about? Have you seen how harsh and condemnatory they can be toward each other sometimes? Have you seen how irrelevant and out of date they are?”
Why would God use the church in this way? Isn’t the church an embarrassment to him? Be assured that God’s wisdom is not displayed because of the blemishes of the church, but because of the One who bought the church for him—Jesus Christ—and what the church is becoming in grace. God is patiently taking his people beyond their blemishes to a beauty that matches that of Christ. The process is long and slow, but it’s happening now. Paul is reminding us that the church of Jesus Christ is a prism through which the radiant wisdom of God is cosmically displayed. It’s no small thing, then, to be a follower of Christ.
Use your imagination for a moment. If Ephesians 3:10 is true, then God could be saying something like this in the heavenly realm: “Hey, Gabriel, take a look at this. Watch my people trust my sovereignty when life is hard rather than stewing in self-pity!” “Hey, Michael, take a look at this: “Watch my people practice servanthood rather than living in selfishness like so much of the world!” And God is not looking to find fault. Like a father who wants to see his daughter shine on the stage in the school play, God delights when his people follow the script he wrote for us. As Paul said elsewhere, his for us not against us. And as the Apostle Peter said, “Even angels long to look into these things” (1 Pet 1:12b).
There once was a church that was totally centered on the gospel of Jesus Christ. Above the entrance to their meeting place hung a sign that read, “We Preach Christ Crucified” (cf. 1 Cor 1:23). Everyone in that church knew what their purpose was in this world.
Over the years, ivy began to grow up and around the entrance, and it obscured the last word of the sign. Soon it simply read: “We Preach Christ.” The members of the church never really noticed the change because the sign accurately reflected what was going on inside. Rather than preaching the crucified Savior as they had in the past, they were now just preaching Jesus as a loving man—an example of how to live—but no death on the cross to atone for our sins.
As the years passed, the ivy continued crawling over the sign, which now read, “We Preach.” Again, the parishioners hardly noticed the change, as the message of the church had become more of a lecture about morality than a proclamation of the good news—that God gave his Son for us that we might have life in his death and resurrection.
Sometime later, the ivy crawled even further and covered more of the sign, to the point where it simply read, “We.” Again, church folks hardly noticed because they had become inwardly focused and only interested in themselves. Finally, the ivy covered the entire sign, and the church died. Such is the fate of any church that minimizes the central truths about Jesus Christ and fails to carry out its mission in this world.
In 1 Timothy 3:15, the Apostle Paul called the church of the living God “the pillar and foundation of the truth.” In other words, the mission of the church is to preserve and promote the central truths of the living Christ. The problem, of course, is that a vast majority of people today no longer believe in the concept of truth. Specific objections to the Christian faith include the following:
“All religions are equally valid and basically teach the same truths.”
“Each religion sees part of the spiritual truth, but none sees the whole truth.”
“Religious belief is too culturally and historically conditioned to be universally true.”
“It is arrogant to insist that your religious truth is right and try to convert others to it.”
“We will never have peace on earth as long as religions make exclusive truth claims.”
This message tackles each one of these objections, seeking to demonstrate that “what I am saying is true and reasonable” (Acts 26:25). It then presents the simple message of the person and work of Jesus Christ, who reveals the Father, as Paul outlines in this passage:
Incarnation: “He appeared in a body . . . .”
Resurrection: “. . . was vindicated by the Spirit . . . .”
Verification: “. . . was seen by angels . . . .”
Proclamation: “. . . was preached among the nations . . . .”
Salvation: “. . . was believed on in the world . . . .”
Exaltation: “. . . was taken up in glory.”
The doctrines represented in the lines of this early hymn quoted by Paul are true. To surrender them is to let the ivy obscure the church’s message.
The word “saint” (Eph 3:18) is a descriptive noun for the people of God in both the Old and New Testaments. The root of the word is “holy,” which means “set apart.” From the time of the Exodus, the Israelites came to be called “the holy ones” because they were set apart by God’s grace and for God’s glory. They were ordinary people like everyone else, but now they were set apart by God for a special work and witness in the world.
So, the word “saint” refers to all believers—not just a few good ones. Indeed, despite the many flaws and faults of the Corinthian believers, Paul called them “saints” (1 Cor 1:2). They were called to grow in the sacred status they had already received in Christ. The same was true for the believers in Ephesus. Paul prays that they would especially grow in love:
“For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:14-19).
The prayer is loaded with theological insights and practical truths, some of which are highlighted in this message. The great doxology that follows the prayer is also glorious:
“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen” (Eph 3:20-21).
What can God do? Paul strings together here a series of “loaded” Greek words to say what cannot fully be said. First, he uses the word hyper, which means “above” or “beyond.” Then he uses the word panta, which means, “all,” “every,” or “any.” Then he uses the word hyper again, this time connecting it with a word that means “excessively” or “all the more.” How would you translate this stack of superlatives?
“far more abundantly”?
“exceedingly abundantly above”?
“beyond all measure more”?
That’s the best our translators can do. However we translate the phrase, it’s a genuine comfort to know we worship a God whose greatness cannot be exaggerated. As Corrie Ten Boom once said, “A religion that is small enough for our understanding would not be big enough for our needs.” The good news is, God is able do anything we can think of. The better news is, he is able to do what we can’t even think of!
And it’s all “according to his power that is at work within us” (Eph 3:20). That power is the same power that raised Jesus from the dead. It’s the same power that raised him up into heaven. It’s the same power that made a new and living way for every saint—every believer—down through history. What trial could we possibly face that is greater than God’s love-power on our behalf? Billy Joel once sang, “I’d rather laugh with the sinners than cry with the saints, ’cause sinners are much more fun.” Paul would beg to differ. The saints of God are set apart to glorify God and enjoy him forever.
The most prominent image for the church in the New Testament is “the Body of Christ.” There are about 15 references to it from Matthew to Revelation. The image implies that believers are to be, do, and say what Christ would be, do, and say if he were physically with us today. For three and a half decades, Jesus lived on this planet as the Son of God—deity in human flesh. In his earthly body, he went around preaching the good news of the kingdom of God, loving and serving those for whom he came.
• With his eyes he saw the physical and spiritual needs around him.
• With his ears he heard the cries of the hurting and the oppressed.
• With his heart he felt compassion toward those who needed the grace of God.
• With his feet he went to their side to be with them.
• With his hands he touched them, fed them, and healed them.
• With his voice he spoke God’s word to them
In time he died on Calvary’s cross for the sins of the world. He was buried in an unused tomb, and on the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is now seated at the Father’s right hand.
On the Day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Christ—came back to earth indwell his people and constitute his church. So, while God came to the world in Jesus in a body 2,000 years ago, he now comes to the world in his new body, the church.
• We are the eyes of Jesus on earth.
• We are the ears of Jesus on earth.
• We are the heart of Jesus on earth.
• We are the feet of Jesus on earth.
• We are the hands of Jesus on earth.
• We are the voice of Jesus on earth.
Believers are the means through which Christ expresses himself and ministers to the world today. In short, the church of Christ is the body of Christ on earth. How in the world could we ever fulfill such a task? We start by staying connected to the head of the body—Jesus Christ himself.
In 1 Corinthians 3 and Ephesians 2, the Apostle Paul likens the church of Jesus Christ to a sacred temple. The building blocks of this new temple, he says, are Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus Christ as the Savior of the world. Together they “rise to become a holy temple in the Lord.” Not only that, says Paul, they’re being “built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.” That is, they are habitations of the divine. Similar imagery can be found in 1 Peter 2.
It’s an amazing image to ponder. First, one of the great themes running through the Bible storyline is that God looking for a home on earth. That’s what a temple is—the intersection point of heaven and earth. Second, Jews and Gentiles were notorious for not getting along. Many within each group harbored a deep resentment toward the other. So, how in the world would this new arrangement work? With such contempt and disgust close to the surface, how would they ever interact peacefully? Clearly it wouldn’t be easy. But here’s the little known secret: it wasn’t supposed to be easy. It’s not supposed to be easy today, either.
The church-as-temple image tells us that God is building a “house” for himself, and flawed believers are his construction materials. Yet, the whole project is for his glory, our good, and the Kingdom’s gain. It was Augustine who first described the church as “a hospital for sinners.” He went on to say it would be very strange if people were to criticize hospitals because their patients were sick. The whole point of the hospital is that people are there precisely because they’re sick and they haven’t yet fully recovered.
And so it is with believers today. Colin Smith has noted, “It’s hard enough for two sinners to make a good marriage. So how much harder is it for 200 sinners or 2,000 sinners to make a good church?” Indeed, Scripture says when we see Christ, “we will be like him,” but until that time comes, we are like a building under construction. Construction is messy. Construction sites are muddy. The construction process can look like chaos. But the mess of construction means the Builder is at work, and the blueprint is being followed. As renowned theologian R. C. Sproul has said:
“The Christian church is one of the few organizations in the world that requires a public acknowledgement of sin as a condition for membership. In one sense, the church has fewer hypocrites than any other institution because, by definition, the church is a haven for sinners. If [we] claimed to be an organization of perfect people, then [our] claim would be hypocritical. But no such claim is made by the church. There is no slander in the charge that the church is full of sinners. Such a statement would only compliment the church for fulfilling her divinely appointed task.”
So, what is God up to in the building of his living temple, whose very stones are flawed from the get-go? That’s what we explore together in this message.
My birth certificate has always been as mysterious as President Obama’s. There are, to be sure, a lot fewer people in the world who are interested in my birth certificate than there were in his. Still, mine is crazy. For starters, there were three originals, and they all had different birth dates (March 30, March 31, and April 1). Second, the named father is not my biological father but the man who would have been my stepfather. And, third, a new birth certificate had to be issued after the “Decree of Abandonment” was signed by a Montgomery County judge:
“The court…finds that Henry Morucci [yes, that was my given name, but you’re not allowed to call me that!] was abandoned by his father…immediately following his birth and delivery of custody to the Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County, he never having seen the child, and after having been contacted by the Children’s Aid Society of Montgomery County showed no further interest or desire to contact, see, or know the child in any manner whatsoever.”
That’s kind of cold to read, even after all these years. But the good news is that a completely different birth certificate was issued 13 months later when I was adopted by Carl and Cherie Valentino of Reading, Pennsylvania. Another signature by the judge—this time on a “Decree of Adoption”–changed everything:
“Hereafter the said Henry Morucci shall be in law the adopted child of the petitioners and shall have all the rights of a child and heir of the petitioners, and shall be subject to the duties of such child, and your petitioners further pray that the said child shall be known as Timothy Ray Valentino.”
If the decree of abandonment is a source of coldness, the decree of adoption is a source of comfort. In one single day, I got a new name, a new home, a new set of relatives, a new inheritance, and a new hope. In one single day, I got a whole new family!
So it is spiritually with the followers of Christ. The church in Scripture is referred to repeatedly as a “family.” That is, at one time we were spiritual orphans, but now in Christ we have been adopted as his children. And that changes everything.
Adoptions are expensive, and Jesus paid for ours on the cross with his own blood. In the process, we gained many spiritual relatives and a new spiritual inheritance. That’s a tremendous blessing and a tremendous challenge at the same time. In the end, we are reminded in this message that the church of Jesus Christ is a family of believers. Be a good brother or sister in the family!
One of the most tragic changes Christianity has experienced in the last 50 years is the minimizing of the centrality of the local church in the life of believers. The Lord’s Day used to be considered sacred. It was dedicated to the worship and service of God, but now it’s treated like any other day. And local church life, which was once considered indispensable to the Christian life, is now treated like an extra-curricular activity rather than an essential part of our spiritual formation.
In his book, Set Apart: Calling a Worldly Church to a Godly Life, Kent Hughes presents six images describing today’s “de-churching” trends—trends that are held even by those who wish to retain some sort of connection to the historic Christian faith:
Cafeteria (or Consumer) Christianity
It’s hard to square these images with the lofty vision of the church found in the New Testament. In 1 Peter 2:4-12, for example, the Apostle Peter sets his sights extremely high. He writes to 1st-century believers about their continued need for Jesus, their continued need for each other, and their continued need for a genuine spiritual commitment. He knows they won’t make it or be effective in this world without these three things. In this message, we learn that the people of God are living stones being built together by Jesus Christ to reverse a crumbling world. Masonry imagery is used to describe both Christ and the church he is building:
Jesus is the living stone. (4a)
Jesus is the rejected stone. (4b, 7a)
Jesus is the chosen stone. (4c, 6a)
Jesus is the precious stone. (4d, 6a)
Jesus is the cornerstone. (6a, 7a)
Jesus is the capstone. (7b)
Jesus is the stumbling stone. (8)
Jesus is the coming stone. (12)
To the masonry image, Peter adds the temple and priesthood metaphor in his description of the church:
We are living stones. (5a)
We are a spiritual house in progress. (5b)
We are worshippers with direct access to God. (5c)
We are a chosen people. (9a)
We are a royal priesthood. (9b)
We are a holy nation. (9c)
We are a people belonging to God. (9d)
We are a people of praise. (9e)
We are a people called out of darkness into light. (9f)
We are the recipients of divine mercy. (10)
We are aliens and strangers in the world. (12)
Peter cites numerous Old Testament passages to make his case. He calls the people of God to live good lives and subdue the war around us (v. 12). But for that to happen, the church must also live godly lives and subdue the war within us (v. 11). The challenge is great, which is why drive-through Christianity doesn’t cut it.
Ever since Genesis 3, it has been hard for people to get along. We’re all so different, and, because of our fallenness, those differences can annoy us, threaten us, and make us suspicious of one another. In jealousy, envy, and pride, we tend to think, say, and do nasty things to each other, making life unpleasant at times.
In the first century, there were two groups of people who didn’t get along very well—Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. The Gentiles were everybody else. Both latent and overt hostility marked their relationship over the centuries. Paul addresses that enmity in Ephesians 2, and he talks about what God has done to rectify it. The solution he offers is still relevant today because the world is more polarized now than ever. In recent years we have witnessed a growing hostility between races, classes, genders, and political parties. The tension is exhausting and disillusioning.
How can God take widely diverse and disparate people and put them successfully into one new group? Paul’s answer is Jesus. Why? Because “he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).
Paul argues that the source of alienation between Jew and Gentile—God’s law—was put on the shelf (2:15a) because the source of reconciliation—God’s Son—was put on the cross (2:13b, 16b). Human beings may be hostile to each other, but God treated his perfect Son as if he were all the world’s hostility rolled into one. And when Christ died on the cross, the Father regarded the hostility itself as having died, too. God’s purpose was to create one new humanity out of the two—a horizontal hostility replaced with horizontal peace (2:15b).
The result is that irreligious people (like the Gentiles, who thought they are “far off”) can now hear and believe the gospel of peace (2:17a). Religious people (like the Jews, who thought they are already near) can hear and believe that same gospel (2:17b). All are “far off” because of sin, but all can “draw near” now because of Jesus. God is wise in this regard. All who draw near to him wind up drawing near to each other, too. Indeed, the only way to fully experience the God who is community is to participate fully in his new community—the church.
That’s not always easy because we’re all different. But believers who draw near to God bear the marks of unity in diversity. That’s why Paul cites the Trinity two times in this passage (2:18, 22). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are the ultimate model for the church—a community of truth, love, and unity in diversity.
What on earth is the church, and why are we here? All authoritative answers to these questions must begin with Jesus, who said, “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18). Since the church is his church, and he is building it, there’s no better place to begin our inquiry than Christ himself. Therefore, in part 1 of this series, we focus on Jesus’ two uses of the word “church” in the Gospel of Matthew, along with its Old Testament background. His first reference speaks of “the Church Universal,” and his second reference speaks of “the Church Local.” What do these expressions mean, and how do they relate?
Quite significantly, the Hebrew word qahal denotes an assembly of Israelites, especially when gathered before the Lord as a “saved” or “rescued” covenant people. When the Greek Old Testament (called the Septuagint) translates qahal, it uses the word ekklesia, which means “group,” “assembly,” “community,” or “congregation.” In secular usage, it meant the gathering of people at a town hall meeting. In sacred usage, it meant the gathering of believers for worship, prayer, and mission.
In our day, the word ekklesia comes into English as “church,” which always refers in Scripture to a “saved” or “rescued” covenant people, never to a building. Let that sink in for a moment. The church of Jesus Christ, according to the New Testament, is a people, not a building. It is people that Christ is building.
As suggested by Jesus’ two uses of the word ekklesia, “the Church Universal” refers to the community of all true believers in every age and in every place. By contrast, “the Church Local” is a community of professing believers at a certain time and in a certain place. The rest of the New Testament bears out this important distinction.
At its most basic level, then, the church of Jesus Christ is a community of believers rescued from sin and released for service. It’s God’s new society. And it’s still very much alive around the world today. No, it’s not yet perfect, but it is perfectible, and it will be perfect when Christ has finished his building.
Authentic Christian community is hard to find. It’s even harder to create. The biggest challenge, perhaps, is to sustain it once we’ve found it. But the search is well worth the effort. Having made the rounds in all kinds of churches, fellowships, small groups, and denominations, I can assure you, it’s out there. Where and with whom might surprise you, but it’s out there—a place where the “one anothers” of Scripture are practiced, and edification takes place on a regular basis. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s electronic or digital. True connection can transcend physical proximity. Where it often struggles to succeed is in transcending human nature.
Arthur Schopenhauer’s well-known fable comes to mind—the one where two porcupines find themselves in a serious dilemma. On the one hand, the creatures need each other, so they huddle up to keep warm in the winter. On the other hand, they needle each other while they’re together, so they have to separate to avoid the pain of getting poked by each other’s quills. The cycle repeats and never ends.
We’ve all been there, haven’t we? I’ve been punctured by plenty of needles over the years, and I’m sure I’ve done my own share of puncturing. I forgive the former and lament the latter. In fact, the latter is sometimes harder for those who have a tender conscience. It’s easy to feel pain when you know you’ve caused pain. (Guilt is a worthwhile subject for another post, as is the common human ailment of hurting other people because we ourselves have been hurt somewhere back on the timeline of life.)
Here’s the perennial problem of human intimacy and fellowship: Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Said another way, can we truly master the delicate balance of the guardedness we need for self-protection and the vulnerability we need for deep connection?
And the answer is not without grace.
Only grace can mitigate the endless cycle of needing and needling each other. Love covers a multitude of pokes. And grace says, “Let’s try this again” after a relational collapse. But grace can be its own thorn, too. According to Jesus, divine grace especially pierces the self-righteous.
Can the individuality we display permit the closeness that our interdependence demands? Not without grace.
Just ask the older brother in Luke 15. Or the religious bureaucrat in Luke 18. Or Simon the Pharisee in Luke 7, whose spiritual debt was a whopping 450 denarii less than the sinful woman’s debt—yet Jesus said he couldn’t pay his bill, either, so he forgave them both. (How humbling it must be to find yourself in bankruptcy court needing the protections of Chapter 11 when you thought you were so rich!)
Jesus’ grace toward the sinful woman was a thorn to Simon. But the forgiven woman now had more to offer her community. She had more love (cf. Luke 7:47), without which community cannot survive. It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that. That’s why bars often feature a better community feel than churches. Folks get real and raw with one another in an atmosphere of authenticity, even if they have to communicate between hiccups.
It’s not the broken who destroy community. It’s the self-righteous, high-minded religious police who do that.
Few people have done more reflective work on the subject of Christian community than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Here are some gems from his book, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community.
Wherever you are in the needing-needling cycle, may these words help you find, create, and sustain authentic Christian community.
• “Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
• “God hates this wishful dreaming because it makes the dreamer proud and pretentious. Those who dream of this idealized community demand that it be fulfilled by God, by others, and by themselves. They enter the community of Christians with their demands, set up their own law, and judge one another and even God accordingly.”
• “Because God has united us in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that life together with other Christians, not as those who make demands, but as those who thankfully receive. . . . We do not complain about what God does not give us; rather we are thankful for what God does give us daily.”
• “Will not the very moment of great disillusionment with my brother or sister be incomparably wholesome for me because it so thoroughly teaches us that both of us can never live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and deed that really binds us together, the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ? The bright day of Christian community dawns wherever the early morning mists of dreamy visions are lifting.”
• “The Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be continually taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more assuredly and consistently will community increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.”
• “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. . . . Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. . . . Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”
• “There is a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. It is an impatient, inattentive listening, that despises the brother and is only waiting for a chance to speak and thus get rid of the other person. This is no fulfillment of our obligation, and it is certain that here too our attitude toward our brother only reflects our relationship to God.”
• “I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me.”
• “Self-centered love loves the other for the sake of itself; spiritual love loves the other for the sake of Christ.”
When it comes to community, are we better at the “needing” or the “needling”? Will we choose the coldness that comes with isolation or the puncture that comes with interaction? Or might there be a third way—the way of Christ? The way of grace?
The Holy Trinity is not a math puzzle (1 + 1 + 1 = 1), it’s a clue to the relational heart of the universe. That clue is precious to believers because the prime reality of existence is not matter. It’s not energy. It’s not quarks. It’s a divine relationship. Specifically, it’s an eternal reciprocating relationship of personal diversity and unbreakable unity. As the well-known hymn puts it, “God in three Persons, blessed Trinity.”
In polytheism, there are many gods and many persons (or personalities), but they all have different wills. Sometimes those wills are in competition with each other. Sometimes they even fight for supremacy. They have different desires and different agendas. So, in polytheism, we have a lot of diversity but no unity. It’s a loose community with hostile communication.
On the other hand, in strict monotheism, there is only one god and only one person (or personality). In this view, from eternity past, the solitary god was all by himself until he began to create angels, humans, animals, and any other sentient beings in the seen and unseen realms. (Only after he created these other beings did he begin to have a relationship with them.) So, in strict monotheism, we have a lot of unity but no diversity. There is no community and no communication.
The Divine Trinity
In Christian theology, of course, we do not have many gods and many persons (or personalities). We do not have one god and only one person (or personality). We have one God in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. While we may struggle to understand that conceptually, we know intuitively that if that were not the case, then God is not (and cannot be) love. Twice in 1 John we read that “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16). That can only be true if God is personal community in some way, as we cannot have shared love without more than one person. We cannot have relationship without more than one person.
The Scriptures reveal a God who is three Persons and one essence—all working together for the salvation of humanity. “For through him [Christ] we both have access to the Father by one Spirit” (Eph 2:18). It’s a conspiracy of love by the divine Trinity, whose members seek to bring unity out of the myriad and conflicted diversities of a fallen world broken by sin.
The Divine Team
Likewise, God’s church in essence is community—a people bearing the marks of unity and diversity. The church is not simply an aggregation of people; it is ideally a tight community of love, truth, communication, and mission because that’s who God is. When people become baptized followers of Christ, they are vitally, organically, and spiritually joined to the Triune God. They are also vitally, organically, and spiritually joined to each other. Being the church, then, is simply living out the image of God corporately as the people of God. Indeed, the only way to fully experience the God who is community is to participate in his new community, the church.
The Divine Image
The New Testament speaks of the church—the company of Christ followers down through the centuries—in a variety of ways. It is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the household of faith, the new creation, the royal priesthood, etc. Minear numbers these images at more than 80, and he suggests that the list swells to over 100 if each Greek word is counted separately. The basic function of these images, says Minear, “is to relate the contemporary Christian generation to that historic community whose origin stemmed from God’s covenant promises.”
While many theologians regard “the body of Christ” as the most important image, Küng holds that “the people of God” is primary. I concur. As people are on the move in this world, so God’s people are also on the move, taking their gifts and graces into whatever situation they find themselves. They have something good to give to the world, and many good things to receive from the world as well. Indeed, the blessings of a “ministry of presence” can flow both ways—from the servant to the recipient, and from the recipient to the servant. People made in God’s image can bless each other whether they live in a state of redemptive grace or not. (Cyrus the Persian comes to mind in this regard.) As Niringiye has said:
“Mission strategy must first and foremost be about listening to the Holy Spirit to discover what he is doing, and then in obedience following. After all, it is the Holy Spirit in whom we live and he in us. . . . [But] mission strategy should also be about listening to those among whom the Lord takes us. Philip did not only listen to the Holy Spirit; he also listened to the eunuch.”
While God’s “church on the move” can be used by God for the sake of mission, her presence on earth is more than just instrumental; it is sacramental and—by necessity—communal. Believers, for example, cannot baptize themselves into the church; another believer must do that for them. Quite significantly, then, in the very act of entering the church through baptism (symbolically in some traditions, efficaciously in others), an enacted statement is made that believers are putting themselves in each other’s hands as well as Christ’s.
What is enacted at the entry is then reinforced by “the meal of sustaining,” when believers gather together for Holy Communion. Moreover, whenever the church gathers and prays together, the prayer is directed to “our Father.” As Volf writes:
“Because the Christian God is not a lonely God, but rather a communion of three persons, faith leads human beings into the divine communion. One cannot, however, have a self-enclosed communion with the Triune God—a ‘foursome,’ as it were—for the Christian God is not a private deity. Communion with this God is at once also communion with those others who have entrusted themselves in faith to the same God. Hence one and the same act of faith places a person into a new relationship both with God and with all others who stand in communion with God.”
The Divine Mandate
Together as believers—that is, the people of God “on the move” beyond the weekly worship gatherings—mission takes place. Very often it takes place among “the least of these” (Matt 25:40). In Christian theology, these “least” matter to the church because they are persons who have life. It is life given to them by God, who has graciously given his Son to all. As Gushee has said:
“Every life means every life, without exception. That includes two-month-along developing human beings in the womb, poor babies in Bangladesh, impoverished children in ghettos, abused wives and children, civilians in war zones, wounded soldiers at Walter Reed, imprisoned detainees in the war on terror, aging people in nursing homes, mentally handicapped people, people convicted of heinous crimes. Everyone.”
Here, then, is the church’s mission, broadly conceived. God’s work of resurrection—of new creation—begins in a wounded world. Whatever the hereafter may hold (and we have hints in Scripture that it is going to be amazing), the here and now holds great significance, too. Jesus was fond enough of this world to linger in it forty days after his resurrection before his ascension back to the Father. During that time, he helped his friends believe in him, and he gave them strength and hope for the journey. By God’s grace, we will do the same in our day. But that will take a concerted effort at working toward internal unity and the reconciliation necessary to realize that unity.
The Divine Prayer
A unified church is a powerful witness to the truth of the gospel. In John 17:20-21, Jesus prayed to his Father that his church would be one “so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” Has Jesus’ prayer ever been answered?
Some years ago a magazine carried a series of pictures depicting a tragic story. The first picture was of a vast wheat field in western Kansas. The second showed a distressed mother sitting in a farmhouse in the center of that field. The accompanying story explained how her four-year-old son had wandered away from the house and into the field when she was not looking. The mother and father searched all day long, but the child was too short to be seen over the tall wheat stalks.
The third picture showed dozens of friends and neighbors who heard of the boy’s plight and had joined hands the next morning to make a long human chain. Together they “combed” the field, searching intently for the lost boy. The final picture was of a heartbroken father holding his lifeless son who was found too late, having just died of exposure. The caption underneath read, “O God, if only we had joined hands sooner.”
Jesus continues to intercede for his church (Heb 7:25). I suspect he prays especially for our hands.
Image Credits: shutterstock.com; pexels.com.
 Paul S. Minear, Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 28.