MESSAGE FOR OCTOBER 7, 2001
“Message #2 in a series on Christ’s Church”
This week, we return to our series on Christ’s church. As we said a month ago, the church, as the Bible presents her is like a multi-facetted jewel with each facet in some way displaying the glory of Christ—his character and his ministry. As we look at this jewel, we want to begin by looking at the most basic, foundational truths about the church and then build upon those as we move on. Perhaps the best place for us to examine the foundation of Bible truth about the church is to look at the word used translated “church” in the New Testament. The word in the original is “ecclesia.” Ecclesia is found over 100 times in the New Testament and not quite half of those usages are found in Paul’s 13 New Testament books. Ecclesia is like many words—it is used in more than one way and the way it is being used in a particular text is often determined by the context—the other words around “ecclesia.” When you look at all the New Testament usages of this word and you shake them all down, you find that the word is used in three ways to speak of Christ’s church and those nuances of this word have some significant implications for us.
One way this word “ecclesia” is used in the New Testament is to signify what theologians call “the church universal.” What that means is the comprehensive number of people world wide and even in heaven who are part of God’s family through faith in Christ. There are local groupings of believers, which we will look in a few moments, but there is also this large, all-encompassing group of believers worldwide and the saints in heaven. The word ecclesia is used to describe that universal group in several places. This is seen especially in Ephesians and Colossians in texts like Ephesians 3:21 where Paul says of God, “to him be the glory in the church [ecclesia] and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever! Amen.” Paul is not calling for God to be glorified in a local church or the church at Ephesus. No. He is calling for God to be glorified in the church universal—wherever there are followers of Christ. Likewise in Ephesians 5:25 he says, “Husbands love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her.” Paul is not saying that Christ gave Himself on the cross for a particular grouping of believers, but Christ died for the entire church—all those who would ever come to God through Christ. The same point is made in Colossians 1:18 where Paul says of Christ, “He is also head of the body, the church;…” Christ is the head of the entire, universal group of those who call on his name and follow him. He is not simply the head or authority over a certain group, but over all who are under His Lordship.
We need to spend a moment thinking about this because this idea of the church universal should not simply be a theological concept for us to know. This idea of the universal church can help us see something of the vastness of God’s glory. In Revelation 7:9, John takes us into the very throne room of God and he gives us a snapshot of what that looks like. He says, “After this I looked and there was before me a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb.” John pierces the veil of the holy of holies here and lets us peer into God’s throne room and there before Him are people of every conceivable background who have called on the name of the Lord. John calls them, “a great multitude that no one could count.” John, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, says no one can count these people because there were so many of them. How many people do you have to have before you reach a number that you could say, even figuratively—“no one could count them?” Whenever I’ve gone to a professional baseball game, they always give the attendance figures and they are in the tens of thousands. That is certainly within the reach of people to count. To say this scene in heaven pictures an enormous number of people would be a cosmic understatement. What’s even more remarkable about this text is that later on in verse 14 we read that this uncountable, great multitude represents only those “who have come out of the great tribulation.” This immense number of people represents only a small percentage of those saints who, in all of history have believed. So, take that fantastic grouping of people and fit it inside the assumedly much larger group of ALL the believers of ALL time. Even though it’s impossible to get that picture in your head, try. The Promise Keepers and other large ministry events have attracted large numbers of believers, but those pale in comparison to this group called “the church.”
Just to expose more of God’s glory, add to this immense number of believers another group of worshippers who are not in the church, but who also worship the Lamb and assemble around his throne. Revelation chapter four describes this scene. John writes, “Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and then thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Again, the apocalyptic language describing the number of angels signifies that the number of angelic beings who worship Christ before His throne is so large as to be incalculable. The Jews in John’s time held that there were more angels than you could count and nothing in this vision would tell us otherwise.
So here we have Christ who is sitting on his throne and before him worshipping are an innumerable supply of angelic creatures and in chapter seven we see another innumerable group of saints who worship the Lamb on the throne and they represent only a percentage of the entire number of saints who worship the Lamb. The combined scenes are devastating in scope—they outstrip even the most prolific imagination. We have no experience that gives us an analogy for these glorious scenes and the question we must ask in response to this is: What does this tell us about Jesus Christ? --This One before whose throne innumerable angelic creatures and innumerable saints worship in joyful adoration, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” And, “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” What does this communicate to us about Jesus Christ, the Head of the church?
Think about what it must be like when these multitudes move from a standing position to drop to their knees and bow before the Lamb—the angels, the other heavenly creatures and the entire, assembled church of God. Think of the wave upon wave upon wave. Think about the piercing decibel level that will resound throughout the heavens when this infinite number all sing in unison, “Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain…” Just as words cannot contain the number of worshippers before the throne, neither can they contain the glory, the splendor, and the majesty of the One who is deserving of this seemingly infinite number of worshippers. And remember, Christ is not glorious BECAUSE all of these beings worship him. It’s because HE IS infinitely glorious and full of splendor and majesty that these beings are compelled to do nothing other than worship before His throne. What a glorious God we serve!
Another lesson that should come from this teaching of the universal church is directed not toward the glory of God, but our own comparative insignificance. Think about it—when you think about this endless ocean of angelic and redeemed human beings who assemble before the throne to worship Christ, you (and I) represent just one person. What effect should that have on us? That should NOT cause us to believe that we are not valuable in God’s sight—He shed his only Son’s blood for us and that makes us of infinite value to Him. But what this scene should powerfully reinforce to us is this—this is not about us. Thinking about our relative insignificance here before the throne should powerfully curb our compulsive tendency to place ourselves at the center of the universe--OUR needs, OUR wants and OUR agendas. Its not about us—we aren’t the One sitting on a throne, no one will be worshipping us—we are one infinitesimal part of this glorious scene and no one but God would even notice if we weren’t even there! That’s a humbling thought and we need those kinds of humbling thoughts to keep us God-centered instead of self-centered. One usage of ecclesia speaks to the universal church.
Another way the bible uses “ecclesia” is to signify “the gathered or assembled church” One scholar has written with some validity “Paul always understands ecclesia as the living, assembled congregation.” This is the most ancient understanding of this word. The classical Greek language, which was in use before New Testament Greek, understood this word to mean a “summons to the army to assemble.” The army was called out of the countryside to gather together. The earliest Christian writers after the biblical canon had been assembled used the word “ecclesia” ONLY for these individual gatherings of believers in the crucified and risen Christ. When “ecclesia” is used in the Greek translation of the Old Testament it is used with this same idea of “mustering” a number of people to one place for an assembly of some sort. Often the word was used to describe “people whom Yahweh had summoned” together for some reason—to hear the law, to conclude a covenant or some such purpose. This usage of “ecclesia” referring to a gathered group of people provided the New Testament authors with a foundational understanding for their use of this word and we see the evidence of this in the New Testament writings. Most often, these church gatherings were in people’s homes so we have references to the church in Nympha’s house in Laodicea (Col. 4:15) and the church meeting at Philemon’s house in Colossae (Phm.2), the church that met in Lydia’s home in Philippi (Acts 16:15,40). In Corinth, some of the believers met at the home of Gaius (Rom. 16:23).
In addition to these New Testament reference to churches that met in people’s homes, there are other texts, which point to this understanding of the church as a group of believers who gather together. In First Corinthians 11:18, Paul is speaking to a problem in the church and says, “For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that divisions exist among you; and in part, I believe it.” Note that. Paul says, “when you come together as a church.” What that means is that for Paul, part of what defines the church is this act of coming together. We see the same thing later on in this letter when Paul speaks to an abuse of the gift of tongues. He says in 14:19, “…in the church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” Paul is speaking of a gathered group of worshipping people and he refers to that group as, “the church.” Do you hear how he identifies the ecclesia so closely with this gathering of people?
Another way we see this meaning brought out is in places like Galatians 1:2 where Paul addresses the recipient of this letter “…to the churches of Galatia.” Paul was writing this letter to the individual gatherings or churches within the Roman province of Galatia. These letters would have been read to the assembled church when they came together. Paul equates the churches with these local gatherings. From the very earliest moments of the church, this gathering together was an essential part of what it was to be part of the church. In Acts 2:44-46 Luke writes about the characteristics of the early church and he says, “All the believers were TOGETHER and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone who had need. EVERY DAY they continued to MEET TOGETHER in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate TOGETHER with glad and sincere hearts…” Do you hear that the concepts of the church and meeting or assembling together are inseparable in these texts? To be in the church IS in part to physically meet together with other believers for worship, instruction and fellowship.
The reason this point is so important today is because there is an increasing tendency among some, who consider themselves to be part of Christ’s church, to minimize and in some cases even eliminate the importance of regularly coming together with God’s people. Increasingly, people are trying to substitute Christian radio and television, cassette tape ministries of popular preachers and even the Internet for this physical gathering together with other believers. George Barna predicts, “As the decade evolves, expect more people to rely upon the Internet for all their spiritual input and output; we’re projecting that the Internet will encompass the aggregate spiritual expression of 10-20 percent of the population by 2010.” In light of the biblical witness, which limits the church to ONLY those who physically gathers together, do we see how WRONG, how unbiblical these trends are? People who think they are part of Christ’s church, but who do not meet together with Christ’s church fail to live up to one of the essential qualities of what it is to be part of Christ’s church.
This point is also valid for those whose church attendance is irregular or infrequent. This is so prevalent today that church growth experts now consider a person to be a “regular church attender” if they attend church three out of eight Sundays. I wonder how it would go over if you interviewed for a job and told your prospective employer that you planned on attending work regularly, three out of every eight days. How reassuring would that be for him? Today, there are many folks who come to church only when it happens to be convenient yet they consider themselves part of Christ’s church. There simply isn’t biblical warrant for this. Neither is there biblical support for many who call themselves Christians but who gather with Christ’s church on only Christmas and Easter and on other “meaningful” occasions such as baby dedications and the like.
Now, don’t misunderstand. I am NOT saying that in order to be a Christian, you MUST attend church. That is legalism. What I am saying the Bible says is this: if you are a genuine believer in Jesus, you WILL regularly gather with the church. That is simply a mark of a person who loves the Lord. Loving the Lord carries with it the idea of loving His people. In several weeks when we speak of the church as “the body of Christ,” we will see that Christianity as a faith is in its essence, by its nature, a communal thing. It is impossible to faithfully live for Jesus outside of the Christian community. That is simply the way God set it up. We are interdependent upon one another. It is impossible to be a “lone ranger Christian” for any length of time. That is a gross violation of the biblical teaching, as we’ll see when we speak of the body of Christ. Yet, that is revolutionary in America where “rugged individualism” has for so long been woven into the fabric of our psyches. Individualism is antithetical—is totally opposed to being a Christian. Do we realize that we are baptized not only into Christ, but we are, according to First Corinthians 12:13, “baptized into ONE BODY.” Our spiritual baptism isn’t only into Christ; it’s into his church. To be a Christian is, in its essence to be part of a group and a big part of how the New Testament defines the church is as a group of people who “gather together.” Hebrews 10:24 says, “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Its as we MEET TOGETHER that this ministry of encouragement happens and because ALL believers need encouragement to follow Christ, it is therefore ESSENTIAL that we regularly meet together.
A final way ecclesia is used is to signify “a people created by and belonging to God.” We see this meaning in verses like 1 Corinthians 1:3 where Paul writes, “to the church of God which is at Corinth…” The word “ecclesia” is linked to the prepositional phrase “of God” or “of Christ.” The point is to emphasize that this ecclesia, this church is created by and belongs to God. The ecclesia of God has God’s fingerprints all over it. He not only birthed the individual members, he also gave birth to the entire corporate group before the foundation of the earth. He wrote the charter—the church was His idea. He holds her together, He builds her, He leads her, He rules over her, He empowers her, He prays for her, He disciplines her, He blesses her, He cleanses her, He restores her, He revives her, He relocates her, He indwells her. He purchased her with the blood of his Son and He has given her as a gift to His Son as His eternal bride. He is her Father, her Master and her King. The ecclesia, the church is God’s and God’s alone.
This group does not come together of their own accord. We are not some sort of religious club who have independently decided to come together because we share a common set of interests. God, through the Spirit has birthed this assembly—she is thoroughly supernatural in her origin, source and beginning. She is essentially different than any other group of people on earth because she has her origin in heaven. It is a heavenly group belonging to God in heaven. She has a heavenly purpose, a heavenly power source and a heavenly home. She may outwardly look like other groups of people, but no other group on earth is even remotely like the church in her essence. We are united not by sociological or demographic or racial or national bonds—all of those connections are rooted in this world. What holds Christ’s church together is the common spiritual connection we have to God by virtue of Christ’s work for us and the Spirit’s work in us. The church belongs to God—we are the church…of God and there is no other church. The word “ecclesia” literally means “called out ones.” The church is made up of people who formerly belonged to Satan and this world but whom God in his mercy has called out of that godless, hopeless, lifeless cesspool of sin and destruction. He has called us out to belong to Him—to become His family, His love slaves and his bride. He calls us out and gives us a new nature utterly different than the unsaved people around us—a new heart, a new disposition, a new direction and a new destination.
This title “the church of God” is one Paul sometimes uses when he wants to impress on his audience the awesome nature of this organism. We see this in Acts 20:28 when he leaves his final instructions to the elders at the church of Ephesus. He tells them, “Be on guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood.” Do you hear how GOD-centered that text is? He tells the elders that their commission to shepherd the flock comes from God--the church they shepherd has been purchased with the blood of the God-man Christ Jesus and the flock is the church of God. In light of that he says to these elders—“Be on your guard for you and them.” What a charge to lay on mere mortals! Apart from the grace and call of God, this would be utterly crushing. Am I encouraging you would-be pastor elders out there?
This is awesome, this church of God. He has a similar emphasis in 1 Corinthians 11:22. The church had been making a mockery out of the Lord’s Supper by being divisive and gluttonous and Paul powerfully compels these carnal Corinthians to feel the horrific severity of this offense--the devastatingly serious nature of their sin against God. Listen how he does that in verse 22. “What! Do you not have houses in which to eat and drink? Or do you despise the church of God, and shame those for nothing…” He pulls out the big guns here and tells them, “this is not simply an assembly of like-minded individuals you are abusing, this is the church of God—do you realize what you are doing?” Four chapters later he employs the same practice when he says in 15:9, “For I am the least of the apostles, who am not fit to be called an apostle [why is that Paul?], because I persecuted the church of God.” Perhaps one of the ways God kept Paul humble in the midst of so much wondrous, potentially pride-inducing ministry was to regularly remind him that when He saved him, Saul of Tarsus was zealously engaged in arguably the most foolish, most godless, vile activity on earth—he was assaulting the church of GOD. And the knowledge of the horrific nature of that sin brought the great apostle to say, without a shred of false humility, “After doing THAT I’m “not fit to be called an apostle.”
A final way the word “ecclesia” is used in the New Testament is to signify that the church is created by and belongs to God. How does that truth impact us? Do we have a high view of Christ’s church? If we do, then we pray for her, we cry for her, we treat her with respect and a sense of awe. Is that our attitude? May God give us the grace to know the truth about the ecclesia of God and act on that truth for his glory.
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