MESSAGE FOR SEPTEMBER 9, 2001
Message #1 in a series on Christ’s church
This week, we begin a new series of messages on the church of Jesus Christ. For some who have been around the church most, if not all their lives, it may seem a bit strange to dedicate the next few months of messages to that topic. “Martin Luther thanked God that, “even a child of seven knows what the church is.” With due respect to Luther, the understanding many believers have of the church today is formed much more by their own experience of the church than by what the Scripture says about the church. In light of the generally poor spiritual condition of the church in North America, it is hazardous to our spiritual health to believe that what we have personally seen and experienced in the church comes anywhere close to what God expects of the church. So, we are going to spend some concentrated time going back to the Bible and, by the grace of God, examine the biblical truth about the church. Hopefully, that will reset our understanding of what the church of Jesus Christ is and bring it into line with the Scriptures.
As we look into the Scripture, we’ll see that the church as it is presented in the Bible, though far from perfect, it is a radiant jewel God has placed on earth with no less a mission than to reflect the glory of Jesus Christ. Now, because the glory of Jesus Christ cannot be contained in one attribute, that means the church, as the reflector of His glory, is portrayed in the Scriptures as multifaceted as it radiates the glory of Christ on earth. This morning I want to, by God’s grace, whet our appetite on this topic and begin to direct our thinking about the church back to the Scriptures. So, let’s just briefly survey the Scriptures and gaze for a few moments upon some of the various facets of the glory of Christ as it is seen in His church. In the weeks to come, we will put these facets of the jewel of Christ’s church under a microscope, but this morning, we’re going to look at them through a wide-angle lens to introduce them to us.
The many facets of the jewel of Christ’s church can be examined in many ways. The way I have found to be the easiest and most profitable is to take the 20 odd titles and metaphors used for the church in the bible and, from each title, see what particular facet of Christ’s glory in the church is being highlighted. We did a similar study of this subject about eight years ago, but this will hopefully be a more probing, more complete look at the church of Christ. To give us direction as we look at the manifold glory of the church, we will ask seven questions about the church. The first question is, what is the church at its most basic level? Here we are looking at the foundational truths about the church. When you want to boil the church down to its most basic elements, what do you have? There are at least two biblical titles for the church that help us answer that question.
The first is the Greek word that is the most frequently used term for the church in the New Testament. It’s even translated as “church.” That word is Ekklesia from which we get our word, ecclesiastic. The word literally means, “called out of.” The church is made up of people who have been called out of the world. But beyond that definition, ekklesia also means--the church as a gathered group of people—the physical assembly or grouping of believers. We’ll see through this term that experiencing church exclusively through tape ministries, or Christian radio and television or the Internet is not a biblical option. Part of the truth wrapped up in the church as the Ekklesia is this idea of a gathering or assembly of people. This word is also used for the church universal—that large, global number of people who belong to Christ and even those who are in heaven with Christ. Those are also elements of the church we’ll explore. A second facet of this jewel that is foundational to what the church is, is the quality of the church expressed in the title, the dwelling of God or, similarly, the temple of God. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 6:16 “… For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." God’s address on this planet is in the church of Christ. He is omnipresent and is everywhere, but the ONE place where he makes his presence or dwelling explicitly manifest is the church. The church is God’s earthly habitation and there are enormous implications for us included in that truth.
A second question to guide our thinking about the church is what is the basic character of the church? This question speaks to the issue of what the church IS, not what it does. Under that question, we’ll see three more facets of the jewel of Christ’s church seen in three more biblical titles. The first is the saints of God. Paul says in Romans 1:7, “To all in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints:…” What does it mean to be a saint as the Bible defines saint? We’ll see that the designation of “saint” speaks to a quality of the church that lies near her very core. That is, the church is called to be holy--like God, morally, mentally, and ethically. The church of Christ is called to holiness—the holiness of Christ. Second, the church’s character is expressed in the designation, God’s New Covenant people. The Old Testament prophets yearned for the time when a new day in salvation history would dawn and God’s people would more fully express God’s will and character on earth. God made some utterly scandalous promises through the prophets about this future group of people. That future is now because of Christ and these remarkable promises can now be claimed by the church. These promises include texts like Jeremiah 32:39 which says, “I will give them singleness of heart and action, so that they will always fear me for their own good and the good of their children after them. 40I will make an everlasting covenant with them: I will never stop doing good to them, and I will inspire them to fear me, so that they will never turn away from me.” That is an amazing promise and if we are in the church of the New Covenant in Christ we can claim it. Ezekiel explains what (or WHO) will enable these New Covenant people to reflect God’s glory in 36:26. God promises, “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. These New Covenant people will be people not only of promise, but people of the Spirit. They will actually have the Holy Spirit living in them. Later in chapter 37:23 he says this about the character of these Spirit-filled people of the New Covenant, “They will no longer defile themselves with their idols and vile images or with any of their offenses, for I will save them from all their sinful backsliding, and I will cleanse them. They will be my people, and I will be their God. That’s an amazing promise—how many of us are claiming these?
A third title speaking of the character of the church is “the citizens of heaven.” Paul says in Philippians 3:20, “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ,” What is that about? It means this planet is not our home—we are aliens and strangers here. We are an outpost, a colony of heaven on a short-term mission’s trip to earth to display the glory of God in this multifaceted way It is absolutely essential for spiritual health for all true followers of Christ to think of themselves truthfully as saints, as new covenant people and as citizens of heaven. . If the church could understand and internalize just those three truths, so much of the rest of the radiance of Christ’s jewel would be seen as a result.
A third question to guide our thinking about this manifold glory of the church is how is the church supposed to relate to God? If the church is God’s idea, his possession, existing for His purposes, how does the church relate to him? There are at least three biblical titles for the church expressing this. The first is, “the children of God.” John says in 1 John 3:1 of believers, “How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are!…” To be a child of the Creator of the universe—that is how we are to relate to God. Paul tells us in Romans 8:15 that part of the work of the Holy Spirit in the believer is to prompt them to inwardly cry out to God, “Abba, Father.” As children of God, we relate to God in love because that is how he relates to us. Another biblical title that speaks to this question—another facet of this glorious jewel of Christ’s church is, “the bride of Christ.” Paul says to the church in Corinth in 2 Corinthians 11:2, “I am jealous for you with a godly jealousy. I promised you to one husband, to Christ, so that I might present you as a pure virgin to him.” We also see this idea of being the bride of God in the Old Testament as well as in the Revelation where there are references to the church as the “bride.” We’ll see that the title “God’s children” expresses a relationship to God marked by loving dependency while the “bride of Christ” expresses the unique and profound intimacy that should mark our relationship with God.
A final title for the church also answers this question of how the church is to relate to God and is the title seen predominantly in the gospels. The church is also a group of disciples of Christ. The command of the Great Commission is to “make disciples.” Clearly, understanding and applying what it means to be a disciple of Christ is essential to spiritual health for the individual believer as well as the corporate church. The title “disciple” focuses the attention not on God as Father or Husband. The understanding of what a disciple is, is wrapped up in the truth that for the church, God is not only our Father and our Bridegroom, He is also our Master. Do you hear how these titles all speak of different aspects of how we relate to God? We must never forget that joy is found when we relate to God in a way that holds all three of these truths in a balance. There are some people who see God only as their Father and the love and dependency is understood, but so often these people can abuse the grace of God because the only thing they understand about God is that He loves them. That’s grossly imbalanced.
The same is true for those who focus exclusively on Christ as their bridegroom. Their walk with God can be marked by syrupy sentimentality. They can easily become utterly irrelevant to other people and they tend toward mysticism—constantly wanting to only “experience God” rather than believe him and obey him. For those who focus only on God as their Master, they easily become hardened and legalistic. They pick up crosses God never has ordained for them to pick up and they end up with broken backs and bleeding hearts. These folks are often self-righteous because they are so much more “serious” about God than other folks in the church. Now, there are seasons in all of our lives when God calls us to more intensely focus on Him as our Father and Bridegroom and Master, but if we are to be healthy, we must have a working balance of all three of those aspects of our relationship with Him and keep them all in our minds as we relate to God.
This “disciple” facet of the church transitions us into the fourth guiding question. We have seen how we relate to God, but the next question is; how does the church relate to the world? The disciples have, as we have seen, been given a commission. The church, as short-term missionaries from heaven have a job to do. What is it? If we look to the Scriptures comprehensively, we will once again see that this mission is multifaceted and those facets can be seen in four other biblical titles for the church. The first is the salt of the earth. Jesus tells his disciples in Matthew 5:13, “"You are the salt of the earth. 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. What does it mean to be the salt of the earth? We’ll see it means that the church, above all other organizations and institutions on earth is placed here to preserve the earth. This implies that if all the true followers of Jesus Christ were to fly to another planet, it would not take very long for this world to self-destruct. We are placed here as God’s preservative against the corruptive influence of sin. If you look at the rapid decline in our nation’s morality, it becomes clear that, although many in the church understand what it means to be the salt of the earth, very few in the church are actually very salty. Many have lost their saltiness and the evidence of that can be seen in any daily newspaper. The latest Barna research figures indicate the divorce rate for the church is 27% of marriages among self proclaimed born again believers. For the world it is 27%, We are not doing very well at preserving the institution of marriage, are we?
Beyond being salt, Jesus a verse later tells the church, “You are the light of the world...” In a world ruled by the Prince of darkness, inhabited by people with darkness in their hearts and minds, the church and only the church is called to be the light of the world. If you walk into a very dark room, even a two-watt night light seems bright. If, in the thick, smothering darkness of this world, we sometimes feel overwhelmed by it, what does that say about the wattage of the church’s light in the North America? Another title for the church—another facet to this jewel is seen in 1 Timothy 3:15, “if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God's household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth. You don’t hear much today about the church and its role as the pillar and foundation of truth. What does that mean? It means that in a world ruled by the father of lies who has sown the lies of atheism and hedonism and materialism and pragmatism and anti-intellectualism; where he has injected into this world false understandings of treasured values like tolerance and love and peace; it means that in that lie-soaked world, the church of Christ and ONLY the church stands as the repository and guardian of the truth. The church of Christ has the answers to the most vexing and profound questions of the day—not science, not the media, not the academy, the church. In an ocean of lies and half-truths, the church stands as the one body of people who have the truth that sets people and civilizations free spiritually, mentally, emotionally and societally. In light of the preponderance of the lies which dominate and direct our culture, how well are we doing as the pillar and foundation of truth?
A final way in which the church relates to the world is another area that doesn’t receive much play in the west but is near the heart of the church’s mission as it relates to the world. That is, the church is the suffering servant of God. We must never forget that part of our task as the church is to suffer as Christ’s church in front of the world and often at their hands. That is not simply something that happens to some unfortunate missionaries who happen to be in unfriendly mission fields or high school students who tragically are in the “wrong place at the wrong time.” This is part of our call as the church. Paul says in Philippians 1:29, “For it has been granted to you [the church] on behalf of Christ not only to believe on him, but also to suffer for him, Two chapters later he says in 3:10, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death,” Jesus says in John 15:19-20, “If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. 20Remember the words I spoke to you: 'No servant is greater than his master.' If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also…”
In light of that statement, if I am a follower of Christ and I have not experienced persecution, then I must conclude that I look to the world like I belong to them more than I look like I belong to Christ. Because if I look like I belong to Christ, I will be hated and persecuted because that is simply how the world relates to Christ. So, it is inescapable that one facet of this jewel of the church must be that of the suffering servant.
A fifth question that helps us focus on this radiant church seen in the Bible is what is the manner in which the church accomplishes its mission? How do we do this? We’ve already seen part of that in the New Covenant people—we accomplish our mission only by the Holy Spirit. But beyond that, there are two other biblical titles for the church that inform us on this question. One such title or metaphor for the church is the army of God. The title implies that this mission is one that will be carried out IN OPPOSITION to something or someone. There WILL be a fight involved in carrying out this mission. We see this in the armor of God text in Ephesians six. We see this in texts like 2 Corinthians 10:4 where Paul says, “The weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world. On the contrary, they have divine power to demolish strongholds.” The militant language in those texts is impossible to miss. In recent years, the militancy of the church has been a topic of more discussion in the church. Many are beginning to see this, but to the church at large, this is basically little more than a romantic notion. The church militant is just not all that appealing for those whose “Christianity” is more like a hobby than a way of life.
On the other end of the spectrum are those who view the Christian life exclusively within the context of warfare. That’s imbalanced. As we’ll see, there is a strong element of militancy in Christ that influences our spiritual lives, but Satan would like nothing better than for us to define our faith entirely in terms of our opposition to him rather than devotion to God. Some in the church today fire off so called “warfare prayers” where they pray against this and pray against that. It seems more of their prayers are directed against Satan than to God. The irony, which must give Satan a nice laugh, is that many who pray that way as “soldiers of Christ” have not changed their lifestyle one iota to fit a wartime mentality. Apparently, they are at war only when they are on their knees. As we’ll see, adopting this wartime mentality and lifestyle is a huge and (in our part of the world) often neglected part of what it is to be a true soldier of the cross. The church accomplishes its mission as the army of God.
Another manner in which we accomplish our Spirit-empowered, God-given, militant mission is expressed through the title the body of Christ. We see this in its most concentrated treatment in First Corinthians 12. Verse 27 says, “Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.” There is so much here, but this speaks mainly about the unity and diversity of the body and what is perhaps even more needed today is what this title for the church says about the interdependency of the body. Do we really understand that the person sitting across the aisle from you is not simply a nice person to have around, a pleasant addition. They just might be a person God has placed in your life and they are essential to your spiritual health and certainly they are essential to the comprehensive spiritual health of this body. God has designed the church so that the members of it absolutely NEED each other if they are to bring glory to God. That concept is all but lost in a church existing in a culture where rugged individualism and self-sufficiency are seen as crowning virtues. God turns those cultural values on their head in the church and part of the reason we see so little fruit in the church today is because we don’t know what it means to truly function as a body instead of a group of gifted individuals who do their own thing.
The title “the body of Christ” transitions into the sixth question that will guide us in our exploration of the church and that is, “How is the church to relate to each other?” Jesus says in John 13:34 "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. The context for all the relationships within the church is love for one another and the title that most clearly highlights this is, the family of God. True followers of Jesus Christ are brothers and sisters in the highest and best sense—much higher than blood relatives—those blood connections will end in heaven. This family of God transcends our DNA and goes right to our spirits—to our essential natures in Christ. It is quite understandable if you are closer to members of the church of Christ than you are to your own blood family, especially if those family members are unbelievers. The love that should exist in the church powerfully radiates the glory of Christ. We’ll look at that.
The final question directing our thoughts as it relates to this radiant jewel, the church of Christ is who is allowed admission into the church? The title that best illustrates this is the title from a human perspective is, “the believer in Christ.” What do you have to do to become a member of this body and family, to join the army, to become part of this bride, to live as a saint, to have your citizenship changed from this world to heaven, to become part of God’s salt and light, to become a disciple of Christ, to be a suffering servant? Answer: You believe. You believe. You place your trust in Christ. You acknowledge that you are a sinner in desperate need of having your sins forgiven. You acknowledge that you are headed for the punishment of hell. And you trust in Christ alone—in his atoning, sin-paying, God-satisfying death for your forgiveness. John 1:12 says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God-- If you are here today and you have not placed your trust in Christ, do so today. Then you will know the joy of being God’s child.
The goals for this series are three. First, to awaken us to the glory of the church and to bask in the grand privilege God has given to all who are part of it. This should cause us to more fervently and rightly worship God. Second, that we by God’s grace will stop experiencing and worse, even celebrating a caliber of church life that is far below the biblical standard. Three, that we will do this by repenting of the unbiblical, lukewarm, man-centered, man-powered efforts and live out the glory of the radiance of the multi-faceted jewel that is Christ’s church. May God give us the grace to do that for His glory.
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