MESSAGE FOR MARCH 3, 2002
(19th in a series on Christ’s church)
This week, we begin our last major section in our series of messages on Christ’s church. Up to this point, we have examined some foundational truths about the church. That is, what is the church in its essence? We then looked at the character of the church as the church reflects the character of Christ. Next, we studied the question, “how does the church relate to God?” and then we explored the mission of the church. Most recently, we concluded a brief look at the manner in which the church accomplishes her mission. The method of study we have chosen as we have examined each of these areas is to look at various biblical designations or titles for the church that highlight each particular aspect of the church. For instance, we have spent the past few weeks investigating how the church accomplishes her mission by use of the designation, “the body of Christ.” This taught us that one way the church accomplishes her mission is as a group of members, diversely gifted to minister in ways that are interdependent upon one another.
Today, the section on the church we begin is how those in the church relate to each other. We saw last week that we desperately need each other if we are to minister as a body as God intends. As we continue, we will see that a profoundly important part of the church’s function is to minister to one another. Jesus said it is how we relate to each other that enables people outside the church to know we are his disciples (John 13:35). The identifying mark of the Christian according to Jesus is found in this area of truth we begin to examine today. The biblical designation for the church that most fully illustrates how we are to relate to one another is captured in the title for the church, the family of God. The same dynamic within the church is present with respect to this title as with the other designations. That is—we are probably all aware of this designation of the church as a family and may on occasion even refer to our local church as “our church family.” But for most evangelicals the church is not in any meaningful sense a family and if it is, the so-called “family” relationships far too often resemble dysfunctional families rather than the glorious familial ideal set forth in the Bible. What does it mean for the church to be the family of God? That’s the question that will focus our thinking for the next few weeks.
Before we begin in earnest, we must first establish that the Bible does indeed refer to the church as God’s family and notice just how prevalent is this family picture of the church in sacred scripture. There are two texts referring to the church specifically as the family of God. Peter, writing in the context of the persecuted church says in 1 Peter 4:17, “For it is time for judgment to begin with the family of God; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God?” The word translated from the Greek can also be translated “household” but the family idea is there. We see this also in First Timothy 3:15. Paul has just written instructions about the qualifications of deacons in the church and says to Timothy, “if I am delayed, you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household [same word—“family”], which is the church of the living God…”
Those are the only two explicit references to the church as a family, but there is a huge number of implicit references to the church as God’s family. We see that in the astounding number of times the biblical authors refer to believers using family terms. The most common familial term in the Bible and the New Testament in particular is the word translated “brother.” The word translated “brother” is used in the New Testament only a handful of times to indicate blood or genetic brothers. The overwhelming majority of the times this use of “brother” signifies the spiritual relationship between two people in Christ—“sisters” is also used when believing women are in view. This use of “brother” to indicate two people’s relationship in Christ apart from any genetic connection is found more than 250 times in the New Testament. Unlike some other commonly used biblical terms, the word “brother” is used in every part of the New Testament—the Gospels, Acts, Paul, the General and Pastoral Epistles and in John’s writings. This family word saturates every strata of the New Testament.
These texts are represented by 1 Corinthians 16:20, “All the brothers here send you greetings…” In 2 Thessalonians 2:13, Paul writes, But we ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers beloved by the Lord…” James writes to his audience in James 1:19, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.” John writes in 1 John 3:13, “Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. 14We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. In New Testament times, perhaps the most common way of referring to other believers was these family terms, “brothers” and “sisters.” The church was viewed as a brotherhood and sisterhood. This was a family. The fact that we in parts of the West seldom use the designation “brother or sister” shows how little we understand and value the church of Christ as our family and how far we are from the reality of the family church lived out by the early church.
It’s not uncommon for people in church to say, “We are part of a church family.” What is often meant by that is “our “real” family is our family of origin but we like to think of our church as a second, auxiliary family in the church.” That’s little more than a warm, fuzzy sentiment without any substance and it does not even begin to capture the dynamic reality taught in the New Testament that the church is our family in Christ. As we’ll see, the New Testament teaches that those people who are in Christ but are not in our families of origin are actually more our family than our genetic family members who don’t love Jesus. The genetic or blood ties are temporary—they end in death. The spiritual ties are eternal. Blood may be thicker than water, but it’s not thicker than the spiritual bond that exists between two people in Christ. The New Testament clearly teaches the genetic or blood ties are not nearly as strong as the spiritual ties. We see this in several places but perhaps most clearly in the ministry of Jesus. In Mark 10:28 Jesus says, “I tell you the truth…no one who has left home or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields for me and the gospel will fail to receive a hundred times as much in the present age (homes, brothers, sisters, mothers children and fields—and with them persecutions) and in the age to come, eternal life.” This is a remarkable promise from Jesus.
We know we are to be willing to separate from our blood families to follow Jesus when that becomes necessary—that’s part of the cost of discipleship and Jesus affirms that here. But he goes on to say in effect, “when you walk away from that family for my sake—when you “lose” your genetic family of origin for my sake—I will give you an even better and larger family.” Jesus promises when we are separated from our unbelieving, genetic family for His sake He will give us another family—a spiritual one with even more relatives and closer, spiritual ties. Part of the reason many Christians from unbelieving families compromise themselves and their faith to stay on good terms with their family of origin is because they believe that’s the only family they have. One reason they may feel that way is because when they look at the church, they don’t see the people in church as being willing to commit to love them like their family of origins do. That however, is exactly the way Jesus portrays the church—as the spiritual family that will more than compensate for the genetic family that ostracizes you for being a faithful follower of Jesus. Beyond that, when a believer leaves a believing family to follow Christ’s call to missions and they are transported half way around the world, what a glorious promise this is to them as well.
Do we hear in all this the exalted vision the Bible presents of our family in Christ—that it is more than able to replace our family of origin? There are probably quite a few people in our church that have basically no relationship with their family of origin because of their commitment to Christ. Do we as a church see ourselves as a family to them in any real sense and do they genuinely see us as the loving replacement family God has provided for them? Jesus promises to all who leave their families for his sake that he has something better. Likewise, in our incredibly transient culture, many, many believers are 100’s of miles away from their family of origin. Even if those distant families are believing families, they simply cannot offer the kind of family love and support needed. Are we at Mt. Of Olives providing a suitable substitute family for these people? That’s certainly implied in what Jesus promised. Are we living up to that as the family of God? I hope we are seeing just how penetrating this truth is of the spiritual family in Christ as the New Testament teaches it.
It’s ironic that the New Testament actually emphasizes this family relationship with one another far more in its comparatively few pages than the much longer Old Testament. That’s seems ironic because of the genetic make up of God’s people in the Old and New Testament. In the Old Testament, the people of God were, with the exception of a few aliens who were captured in war or who had married into the Jews, all descended from Abraham. Abraham was their Father, genetically and spiritually. Most of the Jews were genetically related to one another through their common ancestry with Abraham. They were, with few exceptions, a literal extended family. The New Testament by contrast pictures a church made up of a few Jews but mostly Gentiles who shared no such common genetic family ties. The New Testament church is by design more explicitly made up of people from every tribe, tongue and nation. The throne room of heaven will be multi-colored and multi-cultural. Yet ironically it’s in that highly diverse church pictured in the New Testament where you hear so much more about the family of God with all the references to brothers and sisters and the promise of a new, better spiritual family through Christ.
As we introduce this designation of the family of God this morning, turn to Matthew 12:46 to look at three of the more foundational truths about being in the family of God upon which we will build in the next few weeks. Jesus is speaking to a large crowd here. “While Jesus was still talking to the crowd, his mother and brothers stood outside, wanting to speak to him. Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.” Picture the scene. Jesus is enveloped inside a wall of people and his family—his mother and brothers come to see him—those who are genetically related to him and they want to speak with him about something. To the one notifying Jesus of his family’s desire to see him he says, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and by brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” It’s clear that this spiritual family of followers is preeminent in his life over his family of origin including even his mother, Mary.
This narrative gives us three truths that serve as very general or basic marks or characteristics of this spiritual family seen in Scripture. The first and most foundational mark or characteristic of the family of God is: those in the family of God have the same spiritual Father, God. This is at the heart of what makes us the family of God—having the same spiritual Father. In the Bible, there is really very much continuity between the Old and New Testaments. As you study the Old Testament, you discover that almost all the teachings of Jesus are found in the pages of the Old Testament. There are very few areas in the New Testament where there is not a very high level of continuity with the Old Testament. One of those very few exceptional areas is in this one right here concerning the Fatherhood of God. In the entire Old Testament, God is called "Father" only 15 times. Nine times this designates him as the Father of Israel while only six times "Father" is used with respect to individuals and nowhere in the Old Testament is God addressed as "Father." No one prays to God as “our Father in heaven”—not once in the entire Old Testament—not Moses, not Elijah, not David, not anybody. Not only is the term "Father" used much less frequently in the Old Testament in reference to God than in the New Testament, it is used in a different manner. In the Old Testament God is seen as Father in a more covenantal sense. That is, as author of the special covenant relationship with Israel, God was seen as the divine Patriarch of the national family. This is seen in First Chronicles 29:10: "...Praise be to you, O LORD, God of our father Israel..."
In stark contrast to the infrequency with which this term is used in the Old Testament, it is the predominant way Jesus addressed God. We can understand that because Jesus is “the Son of God,” but it’s also the prevailing form of address Jesus taught his disciple to use in reference to God. God is called "Father" in the New Testament 245 times! This incredible propensity for the New Testament to refer to God as “Father” in contrast to the Old Testament has prompted J.I. Packer to say, “`Father’ is the Christian name for God.” When we see how novel this understanding is in salvation history--to be known as God’s children, the sense of privilege it is to become children of God should thrill us.
We see this in texts like John 1:12-13 where John says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” God begets children who believe in his name—he gives them the right to become children of God. We are children of God NOT because it’s a purely illustrative title to point to the intimate relationship God has established with us—though it certainly does that. Not only that, we are children of God because God has literally birthed us into his spiritual family by the Holy Spirit. Paul says in Romans 8:15, “For you did not receive a Spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by Him we cry, “Abba, Father.”
Here we see that the Holy Spirit we received, as part of His role in us is to enable us to feel, sense and believe that we are not simply God’s servants but also God’s children. God the Father has chosen us—he has adopted us as his children and the Holy Spirit lives within us in part to cause us to believe that God is our Father and relate to Him that way. A second characteristic of the family of God as Jesus presents it here in Matthew 12 is: Jesus is the older Brother of all those in the Church of Christ. Notice in verse 49 is says, “Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers?” The term “mother” Jesus uses to offset the earlier reference to Mary wanting to speak to him. Jesus obviously has no spiritual “mothers.” What is clear from the New Testament is Jesus is older spiritual brother to all who follow Him in discipleship. In Romans 8:29 Paul writes, “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likenesss of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” That term “firstborn” is pregnant with theological significance but just in this limited context of Christ being our older Brother it communicates a wondrous reality. In the Hebrew culture in which Jesus was raised the oldest brother was given authority over the other siblings and a double portion of the father’s inheritance. But the oldest brother also had a serious responsibility to look out for his younger siblings. In the story of Joseph, you’ll remember it was Reuben, the firstborn—the older brother who felt a special sense of responsibility and anguish at his younger brother Joseph being sold into slavery.
In the Jewish culture, the older brother was responsible to protect those who came after him. He would generally look out for the younger siblings, teach them, mentor them and do a good bit of the parenting when He was around them. Now, apply that to the spiritual realm. Jesus looks out for us as our Mediator before the Father. He protects us, He teaches us as our older Brother. What comfort, what a sense of security we should have knowing that Almighty God is our Father, Christ the King of Kings is our older brother and the Holy Spirit is our indwelling Comforter and Guide. Just to think about these astonishing truths blows our gaskets. What a set up we have! As it relates to one another as family, if we are in Christ, then we not only have the same Father, we also have the same older Brother. We are all children of God and younger siblings of Jesus the King. Do you hear how that inextricably anchors us into the same family--what an intensely strong connection we have to one another? The bond that is established when two people share the same spiritual Father and Brother when those two are Persons in the Godhead, is far stronger than any other blood or genetic tie. I want us to see how profoundly we are connected to each other as family. Do we get this? As we’ll see in the weeks to come, this has earth-shattering implications for us and how we are to relate to one another.
A third and final basic characteristic of the family of God as Jesus presents that here in Matthew 12 is found in verse 50. He says, “Whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” Jesus is saying, “I’m redefining family for my followers in spiritual terms and to be part of this spiritual family is to do the will of God.” This third characteristic of the family of God is those who are in God’s family do the will of God. Jesus is not saying that in order to earn a place in God’s family, you have to work for it—if you obey God, He’ll consider you part of the family. That’s works righteousness. What Jesus is saying is that those who are truly members of God’s family are those who show that by doing the will of God. There are parallels in human families. There are traditions certain families uphold that characterize them. The parents tell their kids, “This is the way our family does this.” In some genetic families there are strong physical resemblances. Members of some families are identifiable because they look alike or share characteristic mannerisms.
In the family of God, its not a physical resemblance or an external passing on of secular traditions, but a spiritual resemblance that causes us to act like our Father and our older brother. Just as you can often tell a person belongs to this family or that family because of their traditions or the shape of their forehead, you can with even more precision tell a child of God, a brother or sister of Christ by how they live their lives. When we live in Holy Spirit-empowered holiness, we confirm that our spiritual lineage is in God’s family and we bring honor to our heavenly Father. By contrast, when we walk in patterns of sin, we betray the fact that we are God’s child and Christ’s younger siblings. We dishonor God by, on the one hand, claiming to be His children and the younger brother of Christ and on the other, acting in ways that are utterly contradictory to God’s character. We bring dishonor to the family of God because, as we know on a human level, when one person in the family behaves scandalously that reflects poorly on the entire family. When a well-known Christian leader’s sin is revealed that brings disgrace and dishonor to the entire family of God. We must hear how having this family relationship with God and with one another is for us at one and the same time a great blessing and a tremendous responsibility?
In the weeks to come, we will see some of the profound implications this has for us as part of the family of God in reference to how we relate to one another. For this morning, we want to get hold by God’s grace first, the amazing privilege it is to be a child of God, having God as our Father and the Lord Jesus as our spiritual older brother. Second, with that awesome privilege comes an immense responsibility to actually begin to regard the church not simply as a sentimental family, but a real one—a family more real than our genetic one. That’s the way Jesus speaks of it. Are we there? Do we view the church that way? If we do, what are we doing to relate to one another in ways that manifest the incredible family bond God has used to connect us to one another as we are connected to Him? May God give us the grace to know these truths and be changed by them for his glory and for the good of the family of God.
The title "Father" for God is used by Jesus 65 times. The single instance when Jesus did not refer to God as "Father" is found in the passion account. During that period of time when Jesus took upon Himself the sins of the world, the paternal relationship with the Father was broken and Jesus refers to God as, "My God, my God.” We must never forget that we are in God’s family because for several agonizing moments, Jesus was not able to relate to His Father as His Father, but was instead reduced to relating to him as a cursed sinner.
Page last modified on 3/3/2002
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