MESSAGE FOR APRIL 21, 2002

(23rd message in a series on Christ’s church)

 

          This morning we conclude our series on the church of Jesus Christ.  We have spent 22 weeks examining numerous New Testament designations for Christ’s church.  Today, we want to reflect on those truths and leave this immensely important body of truth with, by God’s grace, a richer understanding of, a greater love and a deeper reverence for the only thing God has ever purchased, his church.  In trying to summarize this series of messages into one message, we have decided to break this mammoth topic down by asking the six investigative questions of journalism, Who, What, When, Where, How and Why.  The answers to two of those questions as it relates to the church can be given very quickly.  The “when” question about the church—that is, “WHEN is the church?” Answer:  all throughout salvation history.  The church has been in existence in some way from the time the thought of it entered the mind of God and the church will be with God for all eternity.  The “where” question is also easily answered—“WHERE is the church?”  Answer: for those who have died trusting Christ, they are in heaven and for those who are still physically alive, we are on earth.  For those who have yet to be born but who will be in Christ’s church, they remain only in the mind of God.  The other four questions cannot be answered so quickly because they get at the heart of what we have been studying these past 22 messages.  The WHO question—“who is the church?” gets to the question of the church’s identity.  The HOW question—“how do we live as the church?” speaks of the church’s character.  The WHAT question—“what do we do as the church?” speaks to the church’s mission and the WHY question—“why do we do what we do?” gets at the issue of the church’s motive.  Let’s begin our summary of our study of the church by reviewing what we have learned as we ask the question “who are we?”--The question of the identity of Christ’s church.

          This question of the identity of the church is the logical place to begin because our identity—who we are, dictates ever thing that follows.  That is, our character, our mission and our motive.  Who we are sets the course for all the other aspects of life in the church.  We studied five biblical designations that relate to the identity of the church.  The first designation is the ekklesia of God.  The word “ekklesia” means “called out.”  The church is that group of people who formerly had been part of this fallen world but God has called them out of the world to be his people—a people created by him and belonging to him.  He not only called us out of the world, he called us to gather together with one another. The Ekklesia is also a word for the gathered church.  There is no such thing in the bible as a church that does not gather together—the gathered church is part of the basic identity of God’s people.  People who don’t gather with the church are not living consistently with the essential identity of the church as God’s ekklesia.

          A second part of the church’s identity is the temple or the dwelling place of God.  God lives within the church—we are his living stones and he takes up habitation within us and among us when we meet together.  God doesn’t dwell with any other people on earth.  Not with the Rotary Club and not with the Muslims or any other world religion.  God’s address on earth is the church of Jesus Christ.  God dwelt among the Israelites in the Tabernacle and the Temple and in the Person of Jesus Christ when He was on earth and now God dwells in his church. 

          A third aspect of our identity is seen in the biblical designation the family of God.  We saw that the New Testament was filled with this glorious truth that we, as part of our basic identity are part of God’s family.  We know God not only as our Master, Creator and Sustainer--He is also our Father.  He has adopted us into his family through Christ and we are not simply placed into an ecclesiastical organization, we are part of a spiritual family.  God is our Father, Christ is our brother and everyone else in God’s family is our brothers and sisters.  This family is to be marked by fellowship where we share with one another—we share our time, our money, our blood, sweat, tears, our resources because we have all been, by God’s grace brought together into His family—a family more enduring and more important than our blood or genetic family.  Part of our identity is to be in God’s family.

          A fourth aspect of our identity as the church is summed up in the biblical designation the bride of Christ.  Here again we see the richness of the familial picture, but with another nuance.  This speaks of our submission to and intimacy with Christ.  As our betrothed husband, he is our spiritual Head.  He is our authority.  He always knows what is best for his bride and our response is to faithfully obey Him.  This part of our identity also tells us that we, as Christ’s church are dearly beloved of God.  God uses the most intimate relationship on earth, marriage (which is really only a shadow of his relationship to us) and uses it to express his overwhelming, astonishing love for his bride.  Our identity as the bride of Christ helps us to see that for us this life is simply preparation for meeting our groom.  Revelation 19:7-8 says of our upcoming wedding day, “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory!  For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready.  Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear.”  Fine linen stand for the righteous acts of the saints.”  For the bride of Christ, one purpose of this life is illustrated in those intense hours of preparation seen in the life of a woman as she prepares for her wedding ceremony.  For the church, this world is heaven’s bridal dressing room.                   

          A fifth and final aspect of our identity as Christ’s church is seen in the designation, citizens of heaven.  To be a citizen of heaven is to be a stranger, an alien to this world.  We don’t put any roots down here—this life is a sojourn, a pilgrimage.  First John 2:15 reflects our alien status by telling us, “Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”  This world is a temporary dwelling.  We have a mansion waiting for us in our true home, but this place and these bodies are tents—temporary domiciles—like fish houses with no foundations. Hebrews 11:10 tells us we have a “...city with foundations, whose architect and builder is from God.” That place is heaven, our home—not this earthly Quonset hut.  In this life, we long for our home and for the One who makes it desirable, God who lives there and waits for us.  This designation for the identity of the church is one of the least noticeable in the worldly, earth-bound North American church and it is a pity because it, as much as any other aspect, strikes near the heart of what the church is. Our identity as Christ’s church is seen in us being the called out, God-indwelt, family related, Christ-betrothed, heavenly community.  That’s who we are.

The second question we want to take an extended look at is the one that asks how do we live?  That question speaks to the character of the church.  What does the church look like?  One biblical designation that refers to the character of Christ’s church is seen in the title, the saints of God.  To be a saint literally means to be “a holy one” or a “set apart one.”  Just as God set apart or sanctified the Old Testament temple and the articles in the temple for his use and service, God has also set apart his church for his special use and service.  The church is also called to manifest holiness—to live out holy lives.  This is what Paul means when he says in Ephesians 5:3, “But do not let immorality or any impurity or greed even be named among you, as is proper among saints.” We are to come out from among the evil elements of our culture and be different--like God who is holy.  Hebrews 12:14 tells us “without holiness no one will see the Lord.  The reason is because if a person isn’t holy, that’s a sure sign God has not separated them out to be his holy vessel, fit for his use.  The church of Christ is holy in its character.

          Another aspect of the church’s character is seen in the designation God’s New Covenant Community.  This title is first seen in the Old Testament prophets who looked at the people of God and despaired because they were so consistently turning away from God and his law.  Romans 8:3 tells us there was nothing wrong with the Old Covenant per se, but the problem was the people in the covenant relationship.  Paul says, “…the law was powerless…in that it was weakened by the flesh.”  The Old Covenant laid down God’s standard of righteousness but did not equip the people with the capacity to carry out that standard of righteousness.  Deuteronomy 29:4 says of them, “But to this day, the LORD has not given you a mind that understands or eyes that see or ears that hear.”   In Jeremiah 31, God reveals to Jeremiah that this would not always be the case.  In fact, God promised (Jer.31:33b), “…I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts…”

We know this promise was fulfilled at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit came and indwelt the church, giving them the power to do the word of God—as Paul says in Romans 8:4, to “fulfill the law.”  This new group, the church, trusts in God’s covenant promises and is enabled to be the people of God through the power of the Holy Spirit.  The church is a thoroughly supernatural community with a supernatural power-supply and a character made possible only by supernatural equipping.  The church reflects in her character the New Covenant promises and power of God.

          A third aspect of the church’s character is seen in the designation, the body of Christ.  We saw that God has never intended his people to function independently from other people.  We are INTER-dependent.  We are made to be part of a community and first Corinthians 12:13 says, “For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body…”  When we were saved, we were saved to be part of a group.  When God gives us gifts, those gifts are not for ourselves but are according to First Corinthians 12:7 given to us for the “common good.”  We are gifted to bless others, not fundamentally ourselves.  We saw from Ephesians 4:15 that our growth in Christ is dependent upon others because we grow as others minister to us and as we minister to others.  The body also speaks of our diverse character.  We each supply something necessary and different to the body so we can all function out of our diversity of gifts and personalities. 

A fourth aspect of the church’s character is seen in the designation the army of God.  We saw that the bible portrays God as a God of war who actively and victoriously fights against his enemies.  Isaiah 42:13 says, “The LORD will go forth like a warrior, He will arouse His zeal like a man of war.  He will utter a shout, yes, He will raise a war cry.  He will prevail against his enemies.”  As those whose character reflects God, the church is called to be militant.  We are called to “demolish strongholds” as we battle against “…the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Eph.6:12).  When God calls us into his church, he calls us into a militant, opposition-filled life and if we are faithful, we will regularly face spiritual opposition intent on destroying us, sent from the prince of darkness.  God has issued weapons to us to attack the enemy and armor to defend ourselves against the enemy’s fiery darts.  This is so much a part of our character that Revelation 2-3 tell us the only people who will make it to heaven are “overcomers,” a military term for conquerors.  All those who are truly saved when they die will have been through a war and, though bearing some battle wounds, will be brought to ultimate victory as overcomers through Christ, the Captain of the host.  In her character the church is militant and will one day in heaven be the church triumphant.  Our character as the church of Christ is seen in us being a holy, promise-believing, Spirit-empowered, militant, interdependent body of Christ.

          The third question we ask to guide our thinking of Christ’s church is “What do we do as Christ’s church? and that of course has to do with the mission of the church.  Before we answer this question, it’s crucial for us to understand that the success of the mission of the church is wholly dependent upon our identity and character.  In other words, this last question about our mission logically follows the other two.  We can be faithful in doing the mission of the church ONLY as we understand something of who we ARE as the church and as we show forth the character of the church.  This order is important because the culture we live in does it upside down.  That is, it has been greatly influenced by the task-oriented, pragmatic value system of the world.  When that influences the church, we are often guilty of focusing first and foremost on what needs to be done without having the solid foundation of truth of who we are and how we should live.  That’s one reason why we see so much ministry being done today that does not reflect God’s power—it’s not supernatural, but dependent only on fallen, human power.  Neither does it reflect God’s holy character but is filled with cheap grace and fleshly evangelistic methods and motives.  Conversely, much of the church has also neglected this last element of mission.  If however you have the first two elements of our spiritual identity and character firmly established, that will cause our grateful hearts to be filled with God and we will not be able to NOT be involved in Christ’s mission on earth.

          God has placed us on earth for mission and one biblical designation which speaks to that mission is the priesthood of God.  God has called us to be priests who, like the Old Testament priests minister before Him and to Him. Also, like the Old Testament priests there are any number of sacrifices we bring before God.  According to Hebrews 13:15 we can bring him, “a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that confess his name.  Another part of our priestly duty is in First Peter 2:9.  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.”  Worshipping God is our fundamental priestly ministry to God.  Our worship of God is to be comprehensive.  That is, everything we do is to be out of worship for God.  Romans 12:1 says we are called to “offer [our] bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship.”  Everything we do is to be offered up to God as a priestly offering.  Our entire mission on earth is broadly summed up in this designation of God’s priesthood.

          A biblical designation for the church that focuses our mission more sharply is seen in the church being the salt of the earth and the light of the world.  As the church lives out its character in the midst of a decaying and dark world, it will be salt that preserves and light that shines in the darkness.  As a holy church interacts and rubs itself into the world (sometimes at the cost of great suffering) the world will be preserved from the moral decay which, without the church’s holy influence, would soon overtake it.  As the church manifests its New Covenant, promise-claiming, Spirit-empowered character it will bring light to the darkness and preserve the rot that has been at work in this world since the fall.  As the church is militant to confront the powers of darkness with the light of Christ, the darkness will be exposed and defeated. Jesus asks in Matthew 5:13, “…But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?  It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men.”  Without a salty and radiant character, the church’s mission is a failure before it begins. 

          A third part of the church’s mission is seen in the designation for the church disciples of Christ.  A disciple is a follower of Christ and at the heart of discipleship is a willingness to surrender all to Christ.  Luke 9:23 sums up the commitment of discipleship of when Jesus says, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”  Jesus’ life resulted in the cross and those who would follow him can expect no less.  One reason for this is bound up in the fact that human beings were created to be a servant people and Jesus says something about the nature of human service in Matthew 6:24, “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will hold to one and despise the other.”  Humans were not created with the capacity to faithfully serve more than one master.  So our mission as people created to serve, but who are only equipped by God to serve one Master, God, is to serve him and only Him.  That means we, as his disciples do whatever he asks us to do without regard to cost. 

          As we continue to narrow down the mission of the church on earth we come to another biblical designation and that is the pillar and foundation of truth found in 1 Timothy 3:14-15.  Contrary to what the world thinks, there IS absolute truth and the bible is our source of this.  The church is called to live that truth and speak that truth on all sorts of issues ranging from the gospel, to the sanctity of life, to business ethics. As the pillar and foundation of truth, the church is God’s base of operations from which the truth can be put on display.  We are to support and uphold the truth before a world which increasingly scoffs even at the existence of it.  Because God is the truth, if we are not impassioned about truth then we are not impassioned about God.  In a world more and more filled with the lies of Satan as seen in philosophies like materialism, pragmatism, rationalism, hedonism and nationalism the church is called to live out and proclaim the lie-exploding, absolute truth of God as it touches all areas of life.

          Another aspect of the church’s mission is captured in the designation ambassadors of Christ.  An ambassador is a personal representative of a head of state or in the church’s case, the King of the Universe, Jesus Christ.  An ambassador receives messages from the King and relays that message to others whom the King wishes to address.  We have no message of our own to bring—we are only messengers of our Sovereign. The message we bring is the gospel and it is a message of reconciliation.  The world is a war with God and a holy God is at war with the world.  But God has paid for the peace by sending his own Son to die and now sends his ambassadors to bring the message that God has enabled them to live at peace with Him.  He has provided a means whereby they can lay their weapons down and submit to his wise and loving plan for them.  We are called to speak this gospel message to a world lost apart from God with reverent and grateful hearts as those who have been ourselves told the good news of the gospel.

          A final aspect of our mission is seen in the designation we looked at last week, God’s house of prayer.  Because we have an impossible mission and because the church is to be a God-dependent organism reflecting God’s heart, we must inescapably be a house of prayer.  We cry out to God for his will to be perfected in our own lives but also in the lives of other people and nations.  Its as we pray that God’s kingdom comes to earth and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.  Prayer is what moves the hand of God so that his mission on earth may be accomplished.  Our mission as a church is seen in us being priestly ministers who, as we support the truth of God, preserve and illumine a fallen world by radically surrendering all to God while we carry His message of reconciliation to a lost world in a spirit of prayer, totally depending upon God and displaying his heart.

          As we close out this conclusion on the biblical designations of Christ church, it is clear that the church of Jesus Christ is an utterly stunning creation of God. And the reason it is so stunning is because it reflects the character and mission of God Himself.  Do we hear how astoundingly high the biblical view of the church is?  The reason it is so immeasurably high is because in her identity the church BELONGS to God.  In her character, the church is LIVES like God and in her mission we SERVE and OBEY God.  We belong to God because we have been called out by God, indwelt by God, are related and betrothed to God and our home is with God.  We are to live like God because we are made in Christ to be holy as he is holy, living out God’s New Covenant as His body, opposing all His enemies and opposition to His rule on earth.  We are to serve and obey God because he has made us a kingdom of priests who are salt and light in the world, surrendering all in his service as we bring his redemptive message to a lost world through proclamation and prayer.  And we are to motivated in all of this for his GLORY and that answers the WHY question about God’s church.  Our identity, our character and our mission were all established by God for HIS glory.  The church is all about God and his glory.

          That’s a summary of these past 22 messages but it would be an act of gross negligence, after we have quickly reviewed these designations for us not to ask the question these truths force us to ask and that is:  How much does my life and this church look like this ravishing, multi-facetted jewel we see in the Bible?  And the answer for me and for the vast majority of the church in the west is, “not much at all.”  The truth is--the Father gave the blood of his Son to purchase a church—one that looks like the one we have just described.  One that is worthy of His name—one that adequately shows a lost and dying world what Jesus is like—HIS character and his ministry.  He died for us and he is worthy of being clearly seen in our lives and in this church.  By and large, most of us are simply not being faithful to show what it is to be a people who BELONG to God, who LIVE like GOD and who SERVE GOD in love and fear. The church, at the cost of the precious blood of Christ, has been mercifully called out of this lost world, indwelt by God, adopted by God, betrothed to God and promised an eternal home in heaven with God.  If that isn’t enough to make us feel deep grief at not faithfully expressing God’s character and carrying out His mission, then we are the personification of lukewarmness! 

          The great news is--God wants us to stand up and be His church.  He sent Christ in part to die for this and he is willing to restore and renew and give us the gift of repentance if we will individually and corporately seek his face.  If my people who are called by my name will humble themselves, and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways then I will hear from heaven and forgive their sin and heal their land.”(2Chron.7:14)  May God give us the grace to repent so that for God’s glory we might be unmistakably recognized as the glorious church of Jesus Christ.

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